A New MIA Tale of Disappearing Images

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday January 12, 1994

The family of Henry “Mick” Serex – an Air Force major whose plane was downed in Vietnam in 1972 and whose name was seen by some intelligence officials on satellite imagery taken over North Vietnam in 1992 — will be leaving here with the case still unresolved. But quite apart from the Serex imagery, which I wrote about in two columns last week (Making ‘Negatives’ in the POW/MIA Case and The Photo: Shadow or MIA Signal), the family’s stressful visit to the capital revealed some telling new information about the Defense Department’s failures to explore MIA evidence and about the fallibilities of its satellite technology and the image “experts” who analyze it.

Here are two of the failures uncovered:

At the Monday session, according to sources there, the Pentagon admitted for the first time that its touted IDEX system cannot pick up symbols on the ground unless they are quite wide. This means that many distress symbols, being too narrow for the system, could have been going undetected or falsely dismissed as blurred shadows or vegetation.

A Senate committee on MIAs revealed in 1992 that the Central Intelligence Agency and the Defense Intelligence Agency (of the Pentagon) had no training in pilot distress signals and therefore, for 20 years, had not been specifically looking for them on overhead photography. Thus, in 1993, a test of the DIA’s skills was made at several sites in the United States. A large number of intentional distress symbols of all varieties were laid down to see if the satellite system and its interpreters could pick them up. The DIA was told the sites, and the imagery was taken. The result, according to information that emerged at the Monday meeting: Almost none of the signals were detected by the DIA and CIA analysts. Only after they were told exactly what the signals were did they find some of them.

What follows is a partial re-creation of what happened Monday when, after persistent pressure by Serex’ wife and two daughters and by Sen. Bob Smith (R-N.H.), Congress’ leading MIA activist, the Pentagon agreed to let family members view some of the imagery they had asked to see. This account is based on information from several of the participants at the session, both on the government side and the family side.

Though the Monday session at the CIA’s photo lab (shared by the Pentagon) was the first time an MIA family had been allowed to see the lab and its product, what happened there came as no surprise. As it has been doing with similar MIA evidence since the end of the war two decades ago, the Pentagon contended there was nothing of relevance on the imagery, even though an independent expert (in this case, a man who used to run this lab) said he saw markings that could have been distress symbols. Also, the DIA failed to produce related photos — requested by the family that would have been useful, possibly pivotal, in clarifying the situation.

Specifically, for nearly five hours, about 15 DIA and CIA officials filled the room and, as one, told the family that the images they thought they saw on a print made from the electronic imagery were neither man-made nor letters spelling out the name SEREX in capital letters on the ground. Instead, the officials said, the images were “a configuration” and “changes in texture” that disappeared when “enhanced” on the IDEX computer screen.

The independent imagery analyst brought to the session by the family was retired Col. Larry Burroughs, who had four decades of photo-interpretation experience with the Air Force and the CIA, where he was acting director of the photo lab.

Burroughs examined an enlarged print made from the satellite imagery and said he saw on it most, though not all, of the letters that Robert Dussault, a Pentagon distress-symbol expert, testified he saw during a briefing at the CIA in August, 1992. Dussault said he saw the whole name, S-E-R-E-X, on the print, and testified under oath that CIA people present agreed that they saw it, too.

Burroughs, in Monday’s session, examined both the print and the imagery as displayed on the IDEX screen. He said he saw on both of them an S and the second E and the X. He said the R was a “possible” but he couldn’t define it clearly enough to say definitely. Burroughs said there wasn’t enough to be conclusive. But, he said, “something is there that created these figures. ”

Burroughs said one way to help resolve the controversy was to produce satellite-generated photos taken of the same area on the days just before and just after the print shown Monday, which was taken June 5, 1992. The reason for needing photos from the same period is that distress symbols don’t always last a long time, getting wiped out by such things as bad weather. Indeed, on Monday, one of Serex’ daughters asked that such photos be produced. Thereupon, a DIA man, Chuck Napper, left the room and, after a long absence, returned to say there was no such imagery. Some in the room found this unconvincing, even suspicious.

Burroughs explained that if the markings on the SEREX photo were, as the Pentagon claimed, “anomalies,” then the other photos would either establish or disprove this contention. What the Pentagon calls “anomalies” — things that look like they’re present but aren’t real — will not appear in the same spot or look the same in a photo taken on a different day, since light and other factors will have changed.

I believe it’s fair to conjecture that the Pentagon believes it succeeded in confusing the Serex family on Monday. I wonder if these masters of confusion realize how much they revealed in the process.

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