By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday, December 22, 1992
We know what happened during Watergate when Richard Nixon refused to release the tapes of conversations recorded in the Oval Office. Congress exploded at the sight of a president putting himself beyond the law. The Supreme Court brought him back within the law. And the 37th president of the United States had to resign.
Well, now a Senate committee has asked for some of the tapes we didn’t get to hear then — this time because the conversations would reveal what Nixon knew about American prisoners left behind in Indochina when the Vietnam peace agreements were signed in January, 1973. And Nixon is refusing to release the tapes. And no one inside the Beltway seems the least bit outraged.
None of the following facts is in dispute. On April 10, 1973, Brent Scowcroft, then deputy national security adviser, gave Nixon a “talking points” paper to prepare the president for a meeting with the State Department official handling the POW-MIA issue. Nixon met with that official the next day. Shortly thereafter, he made a statement that ran contrary to every piece of evidence in the White House’s hands: He declared that all U.S. prisoners had been returned by Hanoi.
And that’s what every branch of official Washington has been saying ever since, for 20 years, through five presidencies. The truth was anathema, because to admit the truth at any time afterward would have sent tremors through Washington that the establishment deemed unacceptable. After all, one presidency had already been brought down by the truth.
The Nixon tapes on the POW issue are but one example of evidence that key witnesses and agencies are stonewalling on now. The Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, in operation for more than a year and about to shut down, has yet to receive anything approaching meaningful cooperation from the White House, the Pentagon, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Security Agency and many other people and entities. Moreover, the committee, headed by Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has itself behaved in a manner to draw into question its own good faith.
Can you imagine Sam Ervin, back then in Watergate, asking for data from the White House, getting rebuffed and then just falling silent and saying nothing? Well that’s what the majority on the Kerry committee has done. Nixon has said, through his attorney, that he won’t let them have the tapes, and they have raised not a single public peep. The few dissenters on the committee have been treated as virtual pariahs by the majority. The dissenters have also been given the silent treatment by most of the mainstream press. No media headlines, no uproar, no calls for accountability, just lap-dog somnolence.
One of the dissenters, committee vice chairman Bob Smith of New Hampshire, said at a public hearing on Dec. 1 that the committee had received “information that on at least four occasions, the Vietnamese reportedly indicated to the United States, through third parties and third countries, that there were live American servicemen in Vietnam and Laos who could be returned through negotiations with the United States.”
Smith went on to cite the dates of the reported overtures — January, 1977; January, 1981; late 1984/early 1985, and 1989/90. I think most reasonable citizens would agree that this is stunning information that needs to be tenaciously investigated.
Yet the committee majority barely stirred. Let’s not make waves here, not if we want to get along in Washington. And the press, too, lay still. There were no big television and newspaper stories dealing with Sen. Smith’s revelations. The Washington elitocracy, including the press, must want very badly to bury Vietnam.
Sen. Smith was specific about one of Hanoi’s reported overtures, which was described here in an earlier column. That overture occurred just after Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in 1981. The reports said that the Vietnamese offered to return 57 men if Washington would provide the $4.2 billion in development aid that had been promised in 1973 by then national security adviser Henry Kissinger. At least one White House meeting was held. Said to be present, among others, were President Reagan and Vice President George Bush.
The committee majority has apparently never pursued either Reagan or Bush to get their testimony about that meeting. We do know, from credible sources, that the offer was turned down — but we don’t know why. We also know that a former Secret Service agent who was assigned to the White House in 1981 has information about the Reagan-Bush meeting. He has said, however, that he will not testify voluntarily, fearing retaliation — since he still works for the Treasury Department though not in the Secret Service. He said he would come forward if he were subpoenaed.
So the Senate committee voted on whether to subpoena the former agent. The result was 7 to 4 — not to do it. The Bush administration had lobbied against the subpoena.
The press didn’t do anything with this story either — except for Mark Sauter of The Morning News Tribune in Tacoma, Wash. Sauter even came up with the former agent’s name – John Syphrit.
As Sen. Smith said on Dec. 1: “I do not see how we can get to the truth on these matters when the committee is not willing to use its subpoena power… ”
The outcome will turn on whether truth is a priority here, rather than the casualty it seems to be.