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By Jon Campbell
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A $4 billion proposal
One such offer was apparently made in the early days of the Reagan administration in 1981. A Treasury Department agent, John Syphrit, was on Secret Service duty then in the White House, where he overheard a conversation about a proposal from Hanoi to turn over a number of live POWs for $4 billion. Four people were involved in that conversation President Reagan, Vice President Bush, C.I.A. director William Casey, and national security adviser Richard Allen.
Reportedly, they had just emerged, with others, from a meeting on national security issues in the Oval Office, where the ransom offer had apparently come up, and the four stepped across the hall into the Roosevelt Room to discuss it further. Syphrit and a colleague were in the room, installing some technical equipment. They could hear the ensuing discussion.
Apparently, the president and his men believed the Hanoi offer to be genuine. It was reportedly conveyed by the North Vietnamese through a Canadian diplomat. Several of Reagan's advisers opposed the idea of paying for prisoners, calling it blackmail. Casey was holding some kind of message in his hand and referring to it as he spoke, asking for instructions on how to proceed. He was cool to the offer. Bush called it a "lost cause." Allen, however, urged that it be pursued. Reagan then told Casey and Allen to look into it further.
It seems the nay-sayers prevailed, because no evidence has ever surfaced that the offer was seriously explored.
Syphrit, however, was a veteran of the Vietnam War. He could not rest holding a secret that could shatter the claim made by both Hanoi and Washington that all the prisoners were returned in 1973. So he told Senator Smith, and in 1992 the Senate POW committee contacted him.
Syphrit, no longer a Secret Service agent but still working for the Treasury Department in another capacity, told them he was willing to testify. He said, though, that the committee would have to subpoena him, because he feared reprisal from Treasury if he came forward voluntarily. The subpoena was issued. Immediately, the White House and Treasury began lobbying strenuously against allowing Syphrit to testify, arguing that this would violate the trust between the Secret Service and those it protects.
Twice Syphrit, now stationed in Chicago, traveled to Washington, expecting to appear. And twice the committee put him off, still undecided as to what to do. Finally, a vote was set on whether to call him to testify. It was seven to four against. Once again the committee had decided to sweep crucial information under its rug.
But the committee did take testimony from one of the participants in the ransom discussion witnessed by Syphrit. It was Richard Allen, national security adviser.
In lengthy, closed-door testimony under oath to committee investigators on June 23, 1992, he generally confirmed Hanoi's 1981 offer, but he seemed hesitant about giving details. His testimony has never been released, but San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Robert Caldwell obtained the section relating to the offer and wrote about it.
Allen was asked by a committee staffer, "Soon after taking office, did the Reagan administration become involved in an offer made by the Vietnamese government for the return of live prisoners of war, if you can recall?"
He responded, "This $4 billion figure sticks in my mind, and I remember writing something I don't know whether it was during a meeting with the president or to him saying that it would be worth the president's going along and let's have the negotiation..."
Then Allen was asked, "Do you recall whether the $4 billion was for live American prisoners? To which he replied, "Yes, I do if it was $4 billion, it was indeed for live prisoners." (Some sources say the number of men was 56 or 57).
Believed POWs held
Allen told the committee that, based on "waves of information," both he and Reagan believed in 1981 that American servicemen were still being held in Indochina. Asked how many he believed were there, he said, "Dozens, hundreds."
Unfortunately and mysteriously, nearly a month after giving his deposition and two weeks after his testimony confirming the ransom offer had been revealed in The Washington Times Allen wrote a strange letter to the committee, recanting what he had said about the 1981 offer. This retraction, however, unlike his testimony, was not given under oath. In the letter, he said his memory had played tricks on him. Yes, he had heard something about such an offer, but it had come years later from POW activists, who asked him about it at a meeting with him in 1986, when he was no longer in government. "It appears there never was a 1981 meeting about the return of POW/MIAs for $4 billion," he wrote.
The committee, in its final report, echoed Allen's recantation, saying that the inquiry into the Syphrit matter "failed to disclose any evidence of this offer." In fact, it went further and said that it found "no convincing evidence" that Vietnam or Laos had ever offered, in 1981 or at any time, live prisoners for money. This was rather surprising in view of the statement made at a committee hearing by its vice-chairman, Senator Smith, a dissenter who had fought hard for a more aggressive investigation. Smith said that the committee had received "information that, on at least four occasions, the Vietnamese reportedly indicated to the United States, through third parties and third countries, that there were live American servicemen in Vietnam and Laos who could be returned through negotiations with the United States."