Opponents square off at Westmoreland-CBS libel trial

The first week of the Westmoreland v. CBS News libel trial brought testimony from witnesses who were key figures in the Vietnam war during the late 1960s, but no surprises.

Witnesses called by retired Gen. William C. Westmoreland's attorney included Walt W. Rostow, President Johnson's national-security adviser; Robert W. Komer, chief civilian deputy to General Westmoreland in South Vietnam in 1967; and Col. Edward H. Caton, a senior intelligence analyst for Westmoreland in Vietnam in 1966-67.

Attorney Dan Burt's questioning sought to show that accusations in the 1982 CBS documentary, ''The Uncounted Enemy: a Vietnam Deception,'' were false. The documentary alleged that there was a ''conspiracy at the highest levels of military intelligence to suppress and alter critical intelligence on the enemy in the year leading up to the Tet offensive.'' CBS contended that this was done to make it look as though the United States and South Vietnam were winning a war of attrition.

Westmoreland is suing CBS News, anchorman Mike Wallace, producer George Crile , and former CIA analyst Sam A. Adams, who was a paid consultant for CBS News for the documentary. The general charges that the defendants libeled him by saying he misinformed President Johnson and the Joint Chiefs of Staff about enemy strength.

Early in the week, Mr. Rostow, who was interviewed by CBS for the program but was not on it, testified that Johnson was well aware of a dispute among military and CIA intelligence analysts over the strength of the enemy in the year before the Tet offensive.

The question the jury must decide is whether any of Johnson's information had come from Westmoreland or his staff.

Judge Pierre N. Leval has reminded the jurors that they must consider not whether Johnson was deceived - since he had ''many sources'' of information on the war's progress - but rather whether Westmoreland ''sought to deceive'' the President with ''politically motivated, arbitrary data.''

Rostow disputed statements from the documentary that in an April 1967 meeting with Johnson, Westmoreland came with the news that the Viet Cong forces had leveled off at 185,000 and that the ''crossover point'' in the war had been reached. Rostow, who was at the meeting, said he did not recall such a ''good news tone'' or the leveling-off figure.

In cross-examination by defense attorney David M. Boies, Rostow conceded that lower strength estimates in the fall of 1967 did not contain the 80,000 to 120, 000 ''home guard'' forces that had been in previous reports. Mr. Boies also showed notes from a former Defense Department lawyer indicating that Westmoreland had said enemy strength was leveling off.

Mr. Komer told the jury on Tuesday that he was at a meeting in May 1967 where Westmoreland ordered that a report by his intelligence chief on enemy strength, including the home guard and guerrillas, be passed on to Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and other top officials .

There were also disputes over whether Westmoreland, as reported by CBS, had shown alarm when given reports of markedly higher enemy strength estimates in May 1967. In the documentary CBS contended that Westmoreland said, ''What am I going to tell the press? What am I going to tell the Congress? What am I going to tell the President?''

Komer said he did not recall those words. Colonel Caton attributed a similar statement to Gen. Earle G. Wheeler, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Komer also disputed CBS's contention on the number of enemy troops during the Tet offensive.

CBS attorney Boies then produced notes and cables to rebut some of the witnesses' recollections. On Thursday he released a cable to Westmoreland from General Wheeler that said new enemy strength estimates would ''blow the lid off Washington.'' The cable continued, asking Westmoreland to ''do whatever is necessary to ensure these figures are not ... released to the news media....''

The court was not in session Friday, but the US Court of Appeals in Manhattan heard a request by the Cable News Network to let it broadcast the controversial trial. A decision is expected this week.

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