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

A closer look at an ugly issue

The day turned into months and still no documents. On September 8, 1992, Senator Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who has led the fight in Congress against the cover-up, sent off a strong and detailed "eyes-only" letter to Defense Secretary Richard Cheney. In it he cited the document stonewalling by the officials and said, "One can only presume their reason was to gain time to screen the remaining files for certain documents they, apparently, did not wish the committee to see." Smith called it "a serious breach" of Cheney's stated full-access policy and demanded that something be done.

Cheney forwarded the letter to the I.S.A. office, thus giving the job of explaining away the stonewalling to the very office responsible for it. The I.S.A. chief, Assistant Secretary of Defense James Liley, assigned his deputy, Ptak, to draft a response to Smith. According to a confidential source, Ptak consulted his friend, committee counsel Codinha, and a September 28 letter to the senator was produced over Liley's signature. (Codinha denies that his relationship with Ptak was a close one and says there was "nothing untoward" or "inappropriate" about it. He also says that he has no memory of the Liley letter. As for Ptak, at press time he had not responded to request for comment.) The letter said that the whole mess was "the result of a misunderstanding. Committee staff members were notified quickly that the remaining ... policy files were available for review, and committee investigators subsequently reviewed the files in their complete, unaltered state."

Agency cleared itself

All this was patently false. And ridiculous. The I.S.A. had essentially cleared itself. "We never did see that 25 percent of the files", a committee investigator said afterward. "They shoved files at us and said it was everything, but it was stuff we had already seen. It was outrageous. We never did get to see a single Weekly Activity Report or Breakfast item".

He went on: "They were afraid of what we would find in those files, and that's why they cleaned them out. And Cheney's commitment was only on paper. They were obstructing the investigation, pure and simple." (Senator Kerry, in his comment, said: "The Defense POW/MIA office has documented that it responded fully and accurately to all of the more than 400 requests for documents made by committee members and their staff").

Then there are the instances when vital documents have not only been withheld, but actually destroyed.

Missing airmen, special codes

One such case involved certain letters that had emerged from Laos in the late 1980s and reached the Department of Defense at about the same time. They were reportedly written by three missing airmen — John Robertson, Larry Stevens, and Albro Lundy.

The letters drew particular attention at the Pentagon because they appeared to be written in code. According to documents, including memoirs written by former POWs, a number of the airmen who flew combat in Vietnam had been trained in special coding methods as a survival technique, should they be captured. The purpose, for example, was to get messages out to the Pentagon through their families by writing letters in language that was coded but would seem harmless to their captors and would therefore be passed on. Documents in the National Archives show that Lundy was one of the airmen trained in this technique. Like all others with this training, one of his missions upon capture was to teach the coding system to as many other prisoners as possible.

Something else was important about those trained in the coding, who numbered perhaps a couple hundred men. The Pentagon kept a separate file on each of them, containing that man's personal coding details. Each file also held special biographical and personal information that would be known only to that man and those closest to him. These private facts were to be coded into any letters or messages the men sent out, to establish their authenticity.

'Striking correlations'

When the Robertson, Stevens, and Lundy letters came in, as revealed in archival records, they were given to the special Pentagon unit trained to decipher codes and other "authentication" techniques the missing men might use. Upon examining the letters, the experts in this unit concluded that they contained signs of special coding. They said they had found a number of "striking correlations" consistent with the conclusion that the letters were likely the work of American POWs. But the only way to decode the messages was to have access to those special files — and the files were held by the D.I.A.

The special Pentagon unit requested Lundy's file, since he was the only one of the three trained in these procedures and could have trained the other two. The answer came back that Lundy's file had been destroyed. The unit could proceed no further. With this, the D.I.A. not only chose to ignore the unit's preliminary findings, but arbitrarily decided the letters were fraudulent.

However, according to archival documents, staffers on the Senate POW committee learned of this and began asking questions of the Pentagon. Why, they asked, had Lundy's file been purged? The Pentagon replied that a number of those folders had been destroyed one by one over the course of the Vietnam War, as airmen periodically were declared K.I.A./B.N.R. — Killed in action/Body not recovered. One reason the Pentagon gave for this action was to clear some space in its overburdened file system.

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