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

A closer look at an ugly issue

I asked the Pentagon about these prisons. Major Steve Little, the spokesman on POW/MIA affairs, called back a week later to say that all five prison sites had been visited and investigated. (My own Pentagon sources told me that only one of the sites had been visited by a Pentagon team, a visit that had taken place only recently, and only after Senator Bob Smith had gone there.)

FOIA request


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If indeed these prison sites had been visited, there would have to be field reports on those investigations. To confirm Major Little's response, I asked him for those field reports. Five days later, he responded by informing me that I would have to submit a request under the Freedom of Information Act. I did so on March 10. At this writing in June I have yet to receive a single document.

The Pentagon's conduct, on prisons as on every other POW issue, has long been protected by most of the Washington establishment. On the evening of January 26 of this year, Bob Smith rose to the Senate floor to oppose a resolution sponsored by Senator Kerry calling on President Clinton to lift the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam "expeditiously." Smith had introduced a different resolution, one that would have required the president, before ending the embargo, to certify that Vietnam had provided "the fullest possible unilateral resolution of all cases" of missing men.

Smith tried that night to present new and tangible POW evidence — in particular, the documents on the secondary prison system — but he was continuously interrupted and badgered by Kerry and his allies. Kerry sneered at the reports of Quyet Tien and the four other camps, calling them "a lot of allegations" that Smith had "thrown out" to the Senate. Without offering a single fact in rebuttal, the Massachusetts senator dismissed the documents as "some old reports taken out of context or something ... but it is not real evidence."

Senator John McCain

One of Kerry's fellow debunkers, Senator John McCain, in a radio appearance the next day, brushed off the evidence as "raw files." The Arizona Republican, a cosponsor of the embargo-lifting resolution, said there couldn't have been a secondary prison system "because we would have known about it." But that's exactly what these documents show: That at some point after the war, we did know about it.

In the Senate debate itself, McCain, like Kerry, provided no facts of his own but simply launched into a diversionary tirade against "the professional malcontents, conspiracy mongers, con artists, and dime-store Rambos who attend this issue ..."

The Kerry-McCain resolution passed easily, 62 to 38, and though it was non-binding on the president, it gave him, in McCain's words, "political cover." Within days, Clinton had ended the 19-year-old embargo against trading with Vietnam. Four months later, in May, the two countries announced they were establishing diplomatic missions in each other's capitals, the last step before an exchange of ambassadors and full recognition.

But lifting embargoes and calling intelligence reports "raw files" cannot erase the tangible evidence. In order to knock down intelligence reports such as those above on the prisons, you have to produce further hard information demonstrating convincingly why the earlier reports were not credible. No such further reports have been provided.

POW files

There's a myth in Washington that virtually all the government's POW documents have been declassified and are available to the public. Bush, in 1992, issued the first declassification directive. Clinton, after taking office in 1993, said he had speeded up Bush's executive order, and last November, on Veterans Day, he announced the process completed.

Wonderful. Try finding any of the C.I.A.'s key operational files on POWs in the National Archives or the Library of Congress. Try finding satellite imagery of POW distress signals. Where are the missing memos and cables on the Vietnamese ransom offers? The truth is that the most significant files, from the highest levels of government and the intelligence community, were not covered by the Bush and Clinton executive orders and remain under lock and key.

(Not that declassifying files necessarily brings them to light. The Pentagon, for example, says it sent stacks of declassified National Security Agency documents to the Library of Congress. But here is how one researcher, Roger Hall, described the situation in a letter to The Washington Times:"... the material has been deliberately mislabeled and scattered into different categories. Those who wish access to these documents are thwarted by the deliberate and malicious concealment of information. There is no way for any average citizen — or expert — doing research on the POW/MIA issue to find this particular material.")

Nixon tapes

And then there are the Nixon tapes. Nixon refused, when the Senate POW committee asked him, to produce the tapes from 1973 (yes, that's right, the Watergate tapes from the Oval Office) that are believed to contain his conversations with Brent Scowcroft and others on the tactics of how to present the prisoner story to the public. One can understand how the late president and his advisers feared being accused of dishonor had they told us the awful reality: That in 1973 they felt compelled by the circumstances to accept the peace accords even though many of our prisoners were still captive. But that was 21 years ago — and still we are denied the truth.

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