Did America Abandon Vietnam War P.O.W.'s? Part 2

A closer look at an ugly issue

Overture dates cited

The senator even cited the dates of the reported overtures — January 1977; January 1981; late 1984 — early 1985; and 1989-90. Smith's revelations came on December 1, 1992, about a month before the committee was to shut down. Yet this hardly persuaded the members to seek an extension of the panel's life. The preparation of the final report was in full swing; there would be no further inquiry. The report sought to depict the committee's investigation of the 1981 ransom report as exhaustive. The reality was otherwise. For instance, a staff memo states that the C.I.A. and the National Security Council did not allow the committee staff to review "the most sensitive files, where the offer might be recorded." Moreover, of the four participants in the White House meeting that Syphrit said he witnessed, only Allen had been deposed.


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Reagan refused to comment

Reagan, now an ex-president, refused to answer any questions on any subject: the committee did not contest his refusal. Bush, who was now president and whose marks were all over this issue from his days as C.I.A. chief in the 1970s, was never even approached. The committee cited "unique concerns about Executive Privilege." And Casey was dead.

Even though he never testified, former Secret Service agent Syphrit was harassed and as a result left the Treasury Department some months ago, after 25 years of government service.

As the years passed, the original human failure — leaving men behind in the rush to get out — was compounded by human weakness, as one administration after another saw the overwhelming evidence yet did almost nothing. They either felt powerless to make the Vietnamese give the prisoners back or refused on principle to pay ransom (though the French had done so, successfully, after their Vietnam war). Frozen in a posture of inaction, U.S. officials apparently concluded that telling the truth about the POWs would not only be admitting a national scandal, but would spark a hostage crisis of major proportions, one that Washington did not know how to solve. So they obfuscated and lied. And with each new disclosure of prisoner evidence, the lies had to multiply and swell. Were the truth told, too many Washington careers would be destroyed, too many powerful people burned.

300 sets of remains

Since the end of the war, Vietnam has turned over nearly 300 sets of remains that have been identified as Americans, yet the Pentagon has never determined a single one of these men to have died after the war's end. But whether it be hard intelligence or sheer improbability, nothing cracks the Pentagon's mask of denial — not the radio intercepts, not the live sightings, not the satellite photos of ground markings. Nothing.

However, one piece of evidence did throw the government's debunking machine into a frenzy — a top-secret Soviet intelligence document that emerged two years ago from Moscow's military archives. It was a Russian translation of what was described as a senior North Vietnamese general's report to the Hanoi politburo. Brought to light by a Harvard researcher, Stephen Morris, it said that as of September 1972, just four months before the signing of the peace accords, Hanoi was holding twice as many prisoners as it would hand over to the United States.

'1,205 American prisoners'

The report said: "1,205 American prisoners of war [are] located in the prisons of North Vietnam — this is a big number. Officially, until now, we published a list of only 368 prisoners of war [the number Hanoi was then admitting at the Paris talks]. The rest we have not revealed."

It went on: "The government of the U.S.A. knows this well, but it does not know the exact number of prisoners of war and can only make guesses based on its losses. That is why we are keeping the number of prisoners of war secret, in accordance with the [Hanoi] politburo's instructions."

Predictably, Vietnam, after two decades of publicly denying it had held back any prisoners, angrily called the document a fabrication. But Washington, too, became apoplectic. Though forced to acknowledge that the report was an authentic Soviet document, the Pentagon nonetheless insisted that it "is replete with errors, omissions, and propaganda that seriously damage its credibility." Specifically, the Pentagon said the 1,205 figure had to be in error because this would mean that 600 additional POWs existed and such a conclusion was "inconsistent with our own accounting."

But why inconsistent? When Hanoi released the 591 men in 1973, the Pentagon itself said there were still 1,328 Americans missing in action and unaccounted for. If half or less were alive, the 1,205-prisoner document seems anything but farfetched.

Besides, what motive could Soviet military intelligence have had for putting a phony report in its files in 1972? Were they thinking ahead with the notion of embarrassing their Vietnamese allies 20 years down the road? It makes no sense.

Defectors' tales

Moreover, other recently declassified U.S. Intelligence reports reveal interviews with North Vietnamese defectors who gave information about unreturned prisoners that closely resembles that contained in the Soviet document. These defectors were regarded as reliable by their American interrogators.

One of them, Le Dinh, had worked in Hanoi's military-intelligence apparatus for four years, and had seen and met with U.S. POWs. He was interviewed in Paris in 1979 and 1980 by Pentagon intelligence officials. Their report quotes him as saying that Vietnam had "retained a strategic asset" of over 700 prisoners that could be used to force the U.S. to pay reparations."

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