By Jared Chausow
By Katie Toth
By Elizabeth Flock
By Albert Samaha
By Anna Merlan
By Jon Campbell
By Jon Campbell
By Albert Samaha
It is not conspiracy theory, not paranoid myth, not Rambo fantasy. It is only hard evidence of a national disgrace: American prisoners were left behind at the end of the Vietnam War. They were abandoned because six presidents and official Washington could not admit their guilty secret. They were forgotten because the press and most Americans turned away from all things that reminded them of Vietnam.
In 1973, after the peace accords, Hanoi returned 591 American prisoners and said these were all the prisoners they had. Yet more than 2,200 American military men are still missing and unaccounted for from the Vietnam War. Half or more of those men are known to be dead though their remains have never been recovered.
But then, there are the others. The Defense Intelligence Agency (D.I.A.) has received more than 1,600 firsthand sightings of live American prisoners and nearly 14,000 secondhand reports. After reviewing them all, the D.I.A concluded that they "do not constitute evidence" that men were still alive.
Prisoners left behind
Here are some stories, many previously untold, about the prisoners who did not come home from Vietnam. All of them are accounts of how Washington, in its deep shame at having forsaken these men in its haste to get out of that draining war, has ignored, withheld, distorted, and destroyed evidence of their existence. These accounts are based on government intelligence documents, on sources closely involved with the material, and on other concrete evidence uncovered during two years of reporting. Sadly for this nation's history, they are but a small sampling of a mountain of evidence.
Only nine prisoners were returned from Laos at the end of the Vietnam War. This startled the experts in U.S. military intelligence, because their closely held lists showed more than 300 men missing in that Hanoi-dominated country. More telling still, their field reports indicated that most of the men were probably still alive.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, years after the war was over, numerous radio messages about American prisoners were intercepted from Laos, a country bordering on and essentially controlled by Vietnam. The messages, which were exchanges between Laotian military units, spoke clearly about American prisoners being transferred from prison to prison or from prison to labor camp inside Laos.
Those transmissions were picked up by the Thai signal personnel and passed to the National Security Agency (N.S.A.) the Central Intelligence Agency (C.I.A.), and the Pentagon's D.I.A. Some of the reports were backed up by HUMINT human intelligence, meaning live sightings by witnesses on the ground, who reported these same prisoner movements.
Incredibly, all three U.S. intelligence agencies refused to judge these reports as reliable. Their reason: The intercepts were made by a "third party" namely, Thailand and under the ground rules laid down by the American intelligence community, third-party information can never be regarded as valid on its own. But this response, a catch-22 if ever one existed, defied common sense, because these Thai signal units had been trained by none other than the N.S.A., the U.S. Intelligence organization responsible for monitoring "signals" transmissions around the world. And the reason the N.S.A. had trained and was using the Thais was that after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the agency largely dismantled its own "collection" network in Southeast Asia.
Here from the files of the C.I.A. is an example of one of those radio intercepts, supported three days later by an independent source on the ground. The radio message, picked up on the morning of December 27, 1980, said: "Refer to the Politburo Ministry of Defense that because U.S. and Thai prisoners have been identified by Thais, Politburo orders they be removed from Attopeu Province (in Southern Laos). Aircraft will pick up POWs at the (Attopeu) airfield on 28 December at 1230 hours". Then, on December 30, came this message from the C.I.A. station in Bangkok to the C.I.A. director's office in Langley, Virginia: "Met with and taped source from Vientiane. The POWs, half Thais and half European, are now in the valley in permanent location (a prison camp at Nhommarath in Central Laos). They were transferred from Attopeu to work in various places ... POWs were formerly kept in caves and are very thin, dark, and starving."
Now, consider the insanity of Washington's circular argument. American listening posts were gone, and thus the Thais were essential to monitoring the radio traffic about POWs. Yet, by Washington's definition, the Thai reports were invalid without U.S. corroboration. But the United States no longer had any means of corroboration. The result was unbelievable: With the exception of one botched cross-border foray in 1981, using Lao mercenaries recruited in Thailand, no serious efforts were made to pursue these reports.
Sometimes, documents show, the failure went beyond lack of effort and became just plain cover-up. Documents retrieved from the National Archives show that some of the radio intercepts were simply purged from U.S. government files, presumably to keep the bungling from ever being discovered by outsiders. One of these documents is a paper copy of one of the radio intercepts about prisoners being moved within Laos. On it, the N.S.A. chief in Southeast Asia, John O'Dell, had written, "Purge ... files of any traffic on this subject."