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

A closer look at an ugly issue

And although a skilled and tenacious staff of committee investigators had managed to weave into the 1,223-page document sizable chunks of potent data that went a good distance toward exposing the POW story, some of the material never made it into the report. Significantly, the staff made the following finding, using intelligence reports that covered sightings only through 1989: "There can be no doubt that POWs were alive ... as late as 1989." This staff document was never released.

Two senators, Bob Smith and Charles Grassley, refused to go along with the majority finding in the final report that said there was "no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia." But their dissent was relegated to a tiny footnote. The footnote said the two could not accept this finding "because they believe that live-sighting reports and other sources of intelligence are evidence that POWs may have survived to the present."


'No conspiracy'

(Asked for comment, Kerry contended, "No evidence of a cover-up has ever been substantiated. And all 12 senators, including Bob Smith, unanimously agreed to the committee's conclusion that there was no conspiracy".) The frustrations faced by those on the committee who were determined to get at the truth are crystallized in the tale of the International Security Affairs documents. The following account is taken from memos, letters and other documents obtained by this reporter.

In July 1992, eight months into its investigation, the Senate committee was granted clearance by a Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Alan Ptak, to examine and copy certain key POW files from a branch of the Defense Secretary's office known as International Security Affairs (I.S.A.). On July 10, committee staffers headed for the Pentagon's Central Documentation Office (C.D.O.) in Clarendon, Virginia, where the files had been shifted, because this was the office designated to process all the committee's requests for information. The stonewalling began instantly upon their arrival at C.D.O.

Chuck Wells, a middle-level Pentagon manager, met the committee aides in the lobby and told them that it was the contention of I.S.A. that the committee had seen all its files. The staffers told him this wasn't true, noting specifically that they had yet to see a single W.A.R. (Weekly Activity Report) or SECDEF Breakfast item. These are pivotal documents. Breakfast items, for example, are minutes of then weekly one-on-one meetings of the Secretary of Defense and the Secretary of State, at which the two men would discuss sensitive, top priority foreign-affairs matters in an informal and very candid setting. The committee staffers knew that POW issues had been discussed at some of these meetings and in the Weekly Activity Reports.

Wells kept stalling them, saying he would try to call I.S.A. again. Finally, after three hours, stuck in an out-of-the way room, "He told us flatly there would be no files made available."


'Stonewalled'

Another staffer, in his record of this encounter, wrote: "Our access ... Remains stonewalled."

Returning to Capitol Hill, the staffers kept pushing. They got committee counsel Bill Codinha to call Alan Ptak, who repeated that they had full access, as had been stated in a letter to the committee from the Defense Secretary himself. Ptak said the problem must lie at the Central Documentation Office. To the staffers it sounded as if the finger pointing was a smoke screen for the likelihood that everyone was in on the stonewall, since it made no sense that a lowly Pentagon document office would defy a clearance granted by the Defense Secretary. Also obstructing these staffers was the fact that some of the top committee people — including the committee chairman, Senator Kerry, and his chief counsel and old friend, Bill Codinha — seemed to have an inappropriately cozy relationship with the Defense Department.

For one thing, Codinha and Ptak maintained unusually close ties throughout the investigation. (Staffers noticed that the Pentagon always seemed to know the committee's next move.) But more important, Kerry, in his public remarks over time, had made clear that his interest was in ending the embargo against Vietnam and bringing about improved relations. And he also arranged committee hearings and meetings in a manner that made the Pentagon a virtual partner in the committee's inquiry instead of being a subject of the probe.

As one staffer wrote, in a memo preserved from the period: "Speaking for the other investigators, I can say we are sick and tired of this investigation being controlled by those we are supposedly investigating."

(Kerry disputes all this. When asked to comment for this article, he said his "only interest in lifting the embargo was to improve access" to POW/MIA information. And he says that "the committee was dependent on the Pentagon to obtain much of its information but the relationship was in no way a partnership. The committee fully investigated all allegations of Pentagon cover-up and malfeasance.")


Sanitizing files

Tellingly, though, the committee staffers came across transcripts of electronic messages from within the Pentagon that confirmed what they already suspected. The purpose of the stalling was to allow the Pentagon to go through the requested files and sanitize them — that is, take out all the sensitive papers. One such internal message said: "Purpose here is to give Ptak/Ross time to review the roughly 25 percent of ... material [the committee] has not seen." (Edward Ross was Ptak's deputy and ironically, was later promoted to chief of the Pentagon's POW/MIA office.)

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