POW/MIA Facts Just Too Troublesome

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday on February 1, 1994

Today we will  examine a number of intelligence reports about American POWs held in North Vietnamese prisons from which no live prisoner was
ever returned.

All of these recently declassified reports, from both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency, discuss sightings of prisoners in the late 1970s, long after the peace accords of 1973, when Hanoi returned 591 prisoners and claimed these were all the POWs it was holding. Some of the newly uncovered reports tell of Vietnamese sources who say they witnessed burials of American prisoners who died of disease, starvation and harrowing labor conditions. The sources were deemed credible by the intelligence investigators. Some of them were given polygraph tests; they passed.

Here are excerpts from reports on one of the prisons — in Quyet Tien, near Vietnam’s northern border with China: “Source [a Vietnamese who was 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.

“Source had no specific information about these prisoners whom he claims to have observed from a distance of 30 to 50 meters on a daily basis … ”

“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 Vietnamese source who was part of a circus group sent in to entertain the cadre at this remote camp, said that the “source claimed that she also observed [in addition to South Vietnamese military prisoners] a small group of male Caucasian prisoners (six to seven) … Source heard from the camp commander … that the Caucasians were U.S. pilots … ”

When I tried to discuss this and other reports like it with Senator John McCain of Arizona on the Larry King radio show last Friday, McCain, who has sought over the years to debunk all data about prisoners who were not returned, quickly dismissed it as “raw files.” Without having examined the documents or spoken to the intelligence investigators who gathered them, McCain said he didn’t believe there could have been a camp near the Chinese border with American POWs in it “because we would have known about it. ”

McCain instead changed the subject and lapsed into name-calling against POW/MIA activists, a tactic he resorts to frequently when the facts get in his way. For example, in last Wednesday’s Senate debate on a McCain-sponsored resolution seeking an end to the economic embargo against Vietnam, the senator ignored the hard evidence and went into a diatribe against “the professional malcontents, conspiracy mongers, con artists and dime store Rambos who attend this issue … ”

In order to knock down intelligence reports such as those on Quyet Tien prison, one cannot simply wave them off as “raw files. ” Rather, it is necessary to produce further information demonstrating compellingly that the earlier reports were not credible. No such further reports have surfaced.

Let us look at some of the other intelligence.

A former inmate at the Thanh Phong camp told American investigators that “the American prisoners who were on work detail were not allowed to go further than 100 meters from their enclosures. Source said that a farmer, Hoan, had shown him the site of a cemetery for American prisoners of war. Hoan said that there were 40 bodies in the cemetery. Source said that there were no grave markers, but he could see the mounds of about 30 graves. Source said that from October 1979 through November 1980 he saw the funerals of 10 American prisoners of war. ”

Another report, obtained in 1981 about an event in 1978: “Viet female refugee, former school teacher … observed 15-20 Americans at location approximately 10-15 kilometers west of Am Thuon railroad station … under guard, on a work detail.” The intelligence interviewer wrote that he “believes that [the] report is credible.”

And about Ha Son Binh prison, a source in 1982 told of 20 graves of American POWs he had seen. Source said that in Feb. 1979, he himself  “and three other persons had buried an American pilot” who had died of malaria.

This is but a sampling. There is much more. Yet not one of the prison sites mentioned above has been visited by the American military search teams now operating in Vietnam. Despite this failure, the Pentagon blindly contends there is no body of evidence that there were prisoners held after 1973. And senators like McCain and John Kerry of Massachusetts (co-sponsor of the embargo-lifting resolution, which passed, 62 to 38) insist that Vietnam’s cooperation in the MIA search has been impressive.

The prison intelligence data was part of a larger body of evidence produced two weeks ago by the American Legion and other veterans’ organizations. It was presented in a meeting with White House officials, since the Senate resolution is non-binding and it is the president who must decide whether to lift the embargo.

Senator Kerry reacted to the opposition of the veterans’ groups by sneering at them. Said Kerry: “I think it was Jack Kennedy who said of the American Legion back in the 1960’s they had not had an original idea in 25 years. Well, now maybe it is 50.”

It’s an old and hallowed tradition of knaves. If the facts aren’t on your side, ignore them and smear the other guy.

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