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

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

When revelatory sworn testimony was given to the committee by President Reagan's national security adviser, Richard Allen—about a credible proposal from Hanoi in 1981 to return more than 50 prisoners for a $4 billion ransom—Kerry had that testimony taken in a closed door interview, not a public hearing. But word leaked out and a few weeks later, Allen sent a letter to the committee, not under oath, recanting his testimony, saying his memory had played tricks on him. Kerry never did any probe into Allen's original, detailed account, and instead accepted his recantation as gospel truth.

A Secret Service agent then working at the White House, John Syphrit, told committee staffers he had overheard part of a conversation about the Hanoi proposal for ransom. He said he was willing to testify but feared reprisal from his Treasury Department superiors and would need to be subpoenaed so that his appearance could not be regarded as voluntary. Kerry refused to subpoena him. Syphrit told me that four men were involved in that conversation—Reagan, Allen, Vice President George H.W. Bush, and CIA director William Casey. I wrote the story for Newsday.

The final Kerry report brushed off the entire episode like unsightly dust. It said: "The committee found no credible evidence of any such [ransom] offer being made."


A newcomer to this subject matter might reasonably ask why there was no great public outrage, no sustained headlines, no national demand for investigations, no penalties imposed on those who had hidden, and were still hiding, the truth. The simple, overarching explanation was that most Americans wanted to put Vietnam behind them as fast as possible. They wanted to forget this failed war, not deal with its truths or consequences. The press suffered from the same ostrich syndrome; no major media organization ever carried out an in-depth investigation by a reporting team into the prisoner issue. When prisoner stories did get into the press, they would have a one-day life span, never to be followed up on. When three secretaries of defense from the Vietnam era—James Schlesinger, Melvin Laird, and Elliot Richardson—testified before the Kerry committee, under oath, that intelligence they received at the time convinced them that numbers of unacknowledged prisoners were being held by the Communists, the story was reported by the press just that once and then dropped. The New York Times put the story on page one but never pursued it further to explore the obvious ramifications.

At that public hearing on September 21, 1992, toward the end of Schlesinger's testimony, the former defense secretary, who earlier had been CIA chief, was asked a simple question: "In your view, did we leave men behind?"

He replied: "I think that as of now, I can come to no other conclusion."

He was asked to explain why Nixon would have accepted leaving men behind. He said: "One must assume that we had concluded that the bargaining position of the United States . . . was quite weak. We were anxious to get our troops out and we were not going to roil the waters . . . "

Another example of a story not pursued occurred at the Paris peace talks. The North Vietnamese failed to provide a list of the prisoners until the treaty was signed. Afterward, when they turned over the list, U.S. intelligence officials were taken aback by how many believed prisoners were not included. The Vietnamese were returning only nine men from Laos. American records showed that more than 300 were probably being held. A story about this stunning gap, by New York Times Pentagon reporter John W. Finney, appeared on the paper's front page on February 2, 1973. The story said: "Officials emphasized that the United States would be seeking clarification . . . " No meaningful explanation was ever provided by the Vietnamese or by the Laotian Communist guerrillas, the Pathet Lao, who were satellites of Hanoi.

As a bombshell story for the media, particularly the Washington press corps, it was there for the taking. But there were no takers.

I was drawn to the P.O.W. issue because of my reporting years for The New York Times during the Vietnam War, where I came to believe that our soldiers were being misled and disserved by our government. After the war, military people who knew me and others who knew my work brought me information about live sightings of P.O.W.'s still in captivity and other evidence about their existence. When the Kerry committee was announced (I was by then a columnist at Newsday), I thought the senator—having himself become disillusioned about the Vietnam War, and eventually an advocate against it—might really be committed to digging out the truth. This was wishful thinking.

In the committee's early days, Kerry had given encouraging indications of being a committed investigator. He said he had "leads" to the existence of P.O.W.'s still in captivity. He said the number of these likely survivors was more than 100 and that this was the minimum. But in a very short time, he stopped saying such things and morphed his role into one of full alliance with the executive branch, the Pentagon, and other Washington hierarchies, joining their long-running effort to obscure and deny that a significant number of live American prisoners had not been returned. As many as 700 withheld P.O.W.'s were cited in credible intelligence documents, including a speech by a senior North Vietnamese general that was discovered in Soviet archives by an American scholar.

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