Senator Goes Missing


John McCain has won the press’s heart—and a sizable chunk of the public’s—by championing progressive causes, not least his dogged drive to clean up campaign financing.

The reporters covering the 2000 presidential primaries virtually swooned inside his campaign bus, which, you’ll remember, was named the Straight Talk Express. The Arizona senator’s message was: The rest of the candidates are dedicated spinners; I’ll tell you the truth. Now the press is gushing over his leadership in breaking the Senate stalemate on the White House’s nominees for federal judgeships. Journalists love this kind of politician. He’s different, a Republican maverick, a thorn in the side of his own party and its president, George W. Bush. To sum up, he makes great copy. He also has made some laudable contributions to better government.

There is one part of his record, however, that the press almost never asks him about. They never ask why this decorated navy pilot and Vietnam P.O.W. has spent so much of his time and energy as a senator pushing through legislation to block the release of information about American P.O.W.’s and M.I.A.’s who are still not accounted for.

Working hand in hand with the Pentagon and the intelligence community, McCain has kept hidden critical documents about a body of prisoners who were alive but secretly held back by Hanoi when the war ended as bargaining fuel for war reparations. They were never returned. They are now merely listed as either dead or missing in action. Seven successive presidents, starting with Richard Nixon, have privately endorsed this cover-up and blackout on P.O.W. documents—while claiming to have directed the Pentagon and the intelligence agencies to declassify everything possible. Sure. And all your toys are made by Santa’s elves.

The reality is that while this shell game was going on, literally thousands of P.O.W. documents that could have been declassified long ago and provided to the families of the missing and the public have been legislated into secrecy. John McCain was a major player in this lockdown.

A couple of examples will give you an idea of McCain’s role. In 1991, he authored what has always been called the “McCain Bill.” Simply put, it created a tight bureaucratic maze from which few P.O.W. documents can possibly emerge. And in 1996, McCain succeeded in amending—and gutting—the Missing Service Personnel Act, removing all its enforcement teeth. The original act contained criminal penalties for anyone, such as a government official, civilian or military, who destroys or covers up or withholds from P.O.W. families any information about a missing soldier. McCain just erased this part of the law. He said the penalties would have a chilling effect on the Pentagon’s ability to recruit personnel for its P.O.W.-M.I.A. office.

Why hasn’t the press—and in particular the Washington press corps—gone after this story? Part of the reason is that immediately after the Vietnam War, the press hunkered down. When Washington tried to blame graphic news stories and TV footage, not its flawed policy, for the U.S. failure in Vietnam, the press for the most part did not confront its accusers and seek to set the public record straight. Instead, it went largely silent and compliant. Much of America was also running away from the black eye that was Vietnam.

Even when the facts about P.O.W.’s were in plain sight, journalists shied away. When the war-ending treaty was negotiated in Paris in January 1973, Hanoi refused to produce—until after the signing—its list of the American P.O.W.’s to be repatriated. U.S. officials were stunned when the list was handed over. It had 591 names, hundreds fewer than American intelligence data showed were alive in captivity. The American list for prisoners in Laos, for instance, had 311 names. Of the 591 returnees on Hanoi’s list, only nine were from Laos. And that was just Laos.

The Laos disparity was reported clearly in the lead of a page one story in The New York Times in late January 1973. The mainstream press never followed up. Not to this day. Everyone focused on the obvious story: the 591 who were coming home. John McCain, on crutches from the torture he had borne, was one of them.

How many Americans remember that in 1992 two defense secretaries who served the Nixon administration in the Vietnam era, Melvin Laird and James Schlesinger, testified before a Senate special committee on P.O.W.’s—on television, under oath—that they believed, from strong intelligence data, that a number of living prisoners in Vietnam and Laos had not been returned? Schlesinger told the committee: “I can come to no other conclusion . . . some were left behind.” Their testimony has never been challenged. Schlesinger, before becoming defense secretary, had been the CIA director.

Incidentally, Senator McCain was a pivotal member of that P.O.W. committee, which was co-chaired by his friend Senator John Kerry. The committee’s final report, in early 1993, whitewashed the evidence that men were left behind. In effect, the report reversed the focus of the inquiry from “What happened to the prisoners left behind in 1973?” to “Are there any prisoners still alive today in Indochina?”

If you recall none of these events, you are forgiven. The press made little of them. The Schlesinger-Laird testimony, for instance, was a one-day story and, in The New York Times, it wasn’t even the lead of the article. The Washington press corps never pursued the story further.

In 1993, a document surfaced from Soviet archives. Its heading said it was a report delivered late in the war by a senior North Vietnamese general, Tran Van Quang, to members of Hanoi’s Communist Party Central Committee. In it, Quang said the army was holding 1,205 American prisoners—614 more than the 591 who were returned. He said only some of them would be handed over initially after a peace treaty. The rest, he said, would be secretly held for leverage until Hanoi received reconstruction reparations for the heavily bombed country. The Pentagon immediately called it a forgery, a plant, but offered slim evidence. The Russian archivists said flatly that it was an authentic document.

As far as we know, Hanoi never received any reparations money. The U.S. said its firm policy was never to ransom prisoners; this claim may or may not be true. No serious effort has been made by Washington or the press to investigate the mystery of the Quang document.

A ransom demand was made to the U.S. in the early days of the Reagan administration, according to sworn testimony to the P.O.W. committee from Reagan’s national security adviser, Richard Allen. He later recanted, saying his memory had played tricks on him. Both the committee and the press docilely accepted his recantation and let the story die there.

Despite all the denials and suppression of key files by McCain and others, ample evidence exists in the National Archives that men were held back by Hanoi. The press can easily use the National Archives if it chooses.

Readers interested in more information can turn to a P.O.W. story I did for the Voice last year about John Kerry’s role. That piece (“When John Kerry’s Courage Went M.I.A.,” February 24, 2004) has links to several other pieces I’ve done over the years. And if you do a Google search for “Sydney Schanberg, John McCain, P.O.W.’s,” you’ll find a longer, more detailed story I wrote in 2000 about the specific legislation McCain has brokered to keep documents hidden and about his rationale for these laws. He says, unconvincingly, that it’s better for the military and the nation if these documents are closely held. He also says that while there was “evidence” of a number of prisoners not returned, there is still no “proof.”

A television movie about McCain’s five and a half years as a P.O.W. debuted over the Memorial Day weekend on A&E. It’s called Faith of My Fathers, based on his 1999 memoir of the same name. It could become part of his campaign ammunition should he seek the presidency again in 2008.

For a man who is so candid about so many other issues, one would hope he will help us better understand his senatorial record on P.O.W.’s. And perhaps the Washington press corps will ask him about it.