By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday August 8, 1994
It has been nearly five months since I sent a request to the Defense Department under the Freedom of Information Act for data about five specific North Vietnamese prisons from which no American POWs ever returned, even though many prisoners were sighted at these facilities long after the Vietnam War was over.
The five prisons are but a sampling of the prison sites in the north where, according to as-yet-unrefuted U.S. intelligence reports, Americans were seen alive years after the peace accords. When the accords were signed in 1973, Hanoi returned 591 men and claimed these were all the prisoners it had. Publicly, President Richard Nixon, desperate to get out of the Vietnam quicksand, accepted this lie.
About the five specific prison sites, the regular Pentagon information office had told me that military investigative teams had visited these locations in recent years. If true, this meant that field reports on the visits had to exist. So I asked for the field reports. That’s when I was told I would have to file a formal FOIA request.
I sent in the request on March 10. I have yet to receive the slightest response.
Strange. If they had the reports, and the reports bore out the Pentagon’s two decades of insisting that no prisoners had been left behind, then why not give the documents to me without hesitation? But the Pentagon’s foot-dragging would be anything but strange if there were in fact no such field reports. My own Pentagon sources told me that only one of the five sites had been visited, a trip undertaken solely because a U.S. Senator had gone to that site and demanded an investigation.
The significance of the intelligence reports on the prisons is that they directly contradict Washington’s official and adamant position: Again and again, for twenty years, the Pentagon has stone-headedly rejected all the evidence that Hanoi maintained a secret, second-tier system of POW prisons.
Hanoi’s motive was not surprising at all. A host of intelligence documents have surfaced — some in recent years and some during the war itself — showing that Hanoi was holding back a substantial number of American POWs, possibly several hundred, as bargaining chips for war reparations from Washington. The money, described as reconstruction aid, was mentioned in American documents during the peace negotiations. But it was a ransom never to be paid.
Let’s look at the intelligence reports on the five, representative, second-tier prisons. The reports come from both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, and they were declassified recently. They record eyewitness sightings, by former Vietnamese inmates and others, of live Americans being held in these camps between 1976 and 1980. In addition to the live prisoners, the witnesses said they saw a total of 81 American graves at the five camps; they drew diagrams of the burial sites. They said the Americans had died of disease, malnutrition and rigorous labor conditions. Some of the sources said they actually witnessed or participated in burials.
The sources were deemed credible by the intelligence investigators. Some were given polygraph tests; they passed. There is no notation in any of these reports of a source who failed a polygraph.
The five camps are as follows: Quyet Tien, Thanh Phong, Yen Bai, Ha Son Binh and Tan Lap-Phu Tho.
Here is an excerpt from a witness report on the Quyet Tien camp, near Vietnam’s northern border with China: “Source [a Vietnamese interned there] claims to have observed 50 or more American prisoners. These prisoners were brought to Quyet Tien as a group in late 1973-early 1974 and were still there when source was moved to another camp in mid-1977 …
“Based on analysis of polygraph charts, it was the opinion of the examiners that there was no deception in the answers to questions concerning his observations of prisoners he was told were Americans.”
Another report on Quyet Tien, from a member of a circus troupe sent ill to entertain the prison staff, said she saw a group of six or seven Caucasian prisoners and was told by the camp. commander “that the Caucasians were U.S. pilots and were being.held at Quyet Tien because it was a special camp.”
A former inmate at the Thanh Phong camp told U.S. intelligence officers that “the American prisoners who were on work detail were not allowed to go further than 100 meters from their enclosures … he could see the mounds of about 30 graves. Source said that from October 1979 through November 1980, he saw the funerals often American prisoners of war.”
And in 1982, a source told of 20 POW graves at Ha Son Binh prison, where, in 1979, he “and three other persons had buried an American pilot” who had died of malaria.
These intelligence documents have never been debunked. Pentagon sympathizers in Congress who have participated in the cover-up have tried to dismiss them as “some old reports taken out of context.”
Old, perhaps, but compelling. The only way you can negate such reports is to supplant them with later investigations that show them to be false.
That’s why I asked the Pentagon for its supposed later documents. I asked them to show me why the reports from these camps are not credible. Don’t we have a right to know what happened to these men? I’m waiting.