When John Kerry's Courage Went M.I.A.

Senator covered up evidence of P.O.W.'s left behind

Senator John Kerry, a decorated battle veteran, was courageous as a navy lieutenant in the Vietnam War. But he was not so courageous more than two decades later, when he covered up voluminous evidence that a significant number of live American prisoners—perhaps hundreds—were never acknowledged or returned after the war-ending treaty was signed in January 1973.

The Massachusetts senator, now seeking the presidency, carried out this subterfuge a little over a decade ago— shredding documents, suppressing testimony, and sanitizing the committee's final report—when he was chairman of the Senate Select Committee on P.O.W./ M.I.A. Affairs.

Over the years, an abundance of evidence had come to light that the North Vietnamese, while returning 591 U.S. prisoners of war after the treaty signing, had held back many others as future bargaining chips for the $4 billion or more in war reparations that the Nixon administration had pledged. Hanoi didn't trust Washington to fulfill its pro-mise without pressure. Similarly, Washington didn't trust Hanoi to return all the prisoners and carry out all the treaty provisions. The mistrust on both sides was merited. Hanoi held back prisoners and the U.S. provided no reconstruction funds.

The stated purpose of the special Senate committee—which convened in mid 1991 and concluded in January 1993—was to investigate the evidence about prisoners who were never returned and find out what happened to the missing men. Committee chair Kerry's larger and different goal, though never stated publicly, emerged over time: He wanted to clear a path to normalization of relations with Hanoi. In any other context, that would have been an honorable goal. But getting at the truth of the unaccounted for P.O.W.'s and M.I.A.'s (Missing In Action) was the main obstacle to normalization—and therefore in conflict with his real intent and plan of action.

Kerry denied back then that he disguised his real goal, contending that he supported normalization only as a way to learn more about the missing men. But almost nothing has emerged about these prisoners since diplomatic and economic relations were restored in 1995, and thus it would appear—as most realists expected—that Kerry's explanation was hollow. He has also denied in the past the allegations of a cover-up, either by the Pentagon or himself. Asked for comment on this article, the Kerry campaign sent a quote from the senator: "In the end, I think what we can take pride in is that we put together the most significant, most thorough, most exhaustive accounting for missing and former P.O.W.'s in the history of human warfare."

What was the body of evidence that prisoners were held back? A short list would include more than 1,600 firsthand sightings of live U.S. prisoners; nearly 14,000 secondhand reports; numerous intercepted Communist radio messages from within Vietnam and Laos about American prisoners being moved by their captors from one site to another; a series of satellite photos that continued into the 1990s showing clear prisoner rescue signals carved into the ground in Laos and Vietnam, all labeled inconclusive by the Pentagon; multiple reports about unacknowledged prisoners from North Vietnamese informants working for U.S. intelligence agencies, all ignored or declared unreliable; persistent complaints by senior U.S. intelligence officials (some of them made publicly) that live-prisoner evidence was being suppressed; and clear proof that the Pentagon and other keepers of the "secret" destroyed a variety of files over the years to keep the P.O.W./M.I.A. families and the public from finding out and possibly setting off a major public outcry.

The resignation of Colonel Millard Peck in 1991, the first year of the Kerry committee's tenure, was one of many vivid landmarks in this saga's history. Peck had been the head of the Pentagon's P.O.W./M.I.A. office for only eight months when he resigned in disgust. In his damning departure statement, he wrote: "The mind-set to 'debunk' is alive and well. It is held at all levels . . . Practically all analysis is directed to finding fault with the source. Rarely has there been any effective, active follow-through on any of the sightings . . . The sad fact is that . . . a cover-up may be in progress. The entire charade does not appear to be an honest effort and may never have been."

Finally, Peck said: "From what I have witnessed, it appears that any soldier left in Vietnam, even inadvertently, was in fact abandoned years ago, and that the farce that is being played is no more than political legerdemain done with 'smoke and mirrors' to stall the issue until it dies a natural death."


What did Kerry do in furtherance of the cover-up? An overview would include the following: He allied himself with those carrying it out by treating the Pentagon and other prisoner debunkers as partners in the investigation instead of the targets they were supposed to be. In short, he did their bidding. When Defense Department officials were coming to testify, Kerry would have his staff director, Frances Zwenig, meet with them to "script" the hearings—as detailed in an internal Zwenig memo leaked by others. Zwenig also advised North Vietnamese officials on how to state their case. Further, Kerry never pushed or put up a fight to get key government documents unclassified; he just rolled over, no matter how obvious it was that the documents contained confirming data about prisoners. Moreover, after promising to turn over all committee records to the National Archives when the panel concluded its work, the senator destroyed crucial intelligence information the staff had gathered—to to keep the documents from becoming public. He refused to subpoena past presidents and other key witnesses.

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