Did America Abandon Vietnam War P.O.W.'s? Part 1

A closer look at an ugly issue

Distress signals

Over the years, scores of what appear to be distress signals were detected by the C.I.A.'s satellite system. The signals were in the form of markings on the ground in Vietnam and Laos — the very markings that American pilots had been specifically trained to use in their pre-Vietnam survival courses. Some symbols consisted of certain letters, like X or K, drawn in a special way. Other markings were the secret and individual four-digit authenticator numbers given to many of the pilots who flew over Vietnam. And, at times, men have simply carved out their own names.

But time and again, when these numbers or letters or names have shown up on the satellite digital imagery, the Pentagon, backed by the C.I.A., insisted out of hand that humans had not made these markings. What were they, then? Nothing but shadows and vegetation, said the government, and normal contours like rice-paddy walls. Whether the satellite picked up letters or numbers or names, the dismissive answer was always the same. Officials of the Defense Intelligence Agency would say, in what seemed an automatic response, "Shadows and vegetation. Shadows and vegetation."

After hearing this refrain for months, one Senate investigator, Bob Taylor, a highly regarded intelligence analyst who had examined the photo evidence, finally commented in sardonic dissent, "If grass can spell out people's names and a secret digit code then I have a newfound respect for grass."

Some striking details of the D.I.A.'s nay-saying posture were contained in the report issued last year by the committee on which Taylor served, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The material got into the report, however, not because of the committee but largely in spite of it — after heavy resistance, editing, and other machinations by the panel's Pentagon-leaning majority.

Sometimes the D.I.A. uses its fancy word for the distress symbols it rejects: anomalies. The D.I.A. men explain with straight faces that a "photo anomaly" is something you see but really isn't there. Independent experts in imagery analysis consider this a bad joke, saying that when you see something on a photo or on digital imagery, it's usually real.

To date, no MIA family has ever been notified by the Pentagon about any of these ground markings, many of which correlated to the name or distress letters or secret four-letter code of a particular missing man. The Pentagon says that since the markings in its opinion were "anomalies" and not man-made, to inform families about them would only subject them to needless, additional anguish.

But the government's own survival experts are livid over the D.I.A.'s "shadows and vegetation and contour" line. In firm rebuttal, the men at J.S.S.A. (the Air Force's survival training unit, officially titled Joint Services Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape Agency ) kept explaining that using vegetation and natural formations to construct distress markings was exactly what their agency had trained pilots to do in captivity — so as to be less obvious and avoid detection by their jailers.

Distress signals

Then there are the distress signals that were never even found. Almost all the signals we know about — roughly 100 or so — were discovered in the last few years, meaning that this can be only a fraction of the likely total. The astonishing reason for this is that, although the United States regularly flew low-level reconnaissance planes and spy satellites over Indochina from the end of the war onward, it was not until the 1990s that the intelligence agencies began to look for distress symbols on the voluminous photos and digital imagery they collected. Incredibly, they had no instructions to do so.

The Senate report said, "The Committee was rather surprised to find that neither D.I.A. or C.I.A. imagery analysts were familiar with Vietnam pilot distress symbols, or had a requirement to look for possible symbols, prior to the Committee's inquiry. This was confirmed under oath by imagery analysts from both agencies."

Further on, the report grew even more damning: "Another indicator that D.I.A. has done little to address the possibility of distress symbols appearing on photography is its inability to account for the Army's, Navy's or Marine Corps' pilot authenticator numbers. J.S.S.A. still preserves those for the Air Force. As recorded in the hearing of October 15 (1992) D.I.A. does not know what happened to the numbers. This is a significant failure ... It supports the theory that D.I.A. has never taken the possibility of symbols seriously... "In theory, therefore, if a POW still living in captivity were to attempt to communicate by ground signal, smuggling out a note or by whatever means possible, and he used his personal authenticator number to confirm his identity, the U.S. government would be unable to provide such confirmation if his number happened to be among those numbers D.I.A. cannot locate."

Secrecy and untruths

These revealing passages, however, belied the true nature of the Senate committee. It was dominated by a faction led by its chairman, the charismatic John Kerry of Massachusetts. This group wanted to appear to be probing the prisoner issue energetically, but in fact, they never rocked official Washington's boat, nor did they lay open the 20 years of secrecy and untruths. Thus, in their final report, issued in January 1993, after more than a year in operation, the conclusions as to men left behind were watered down and muddied to the point of meaninglessness.

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