By Sydney H. Schanberg
Published in New York Newsday January 14, 1994
On Tuesday, the State Department opened the door to the possibility that American POWs from the Vietnam War could be alive in Laos. Yet no major newspaper carried the story.
Thus, today, we take up one more facet of the MIA scandal — the ability of the mainstream press to ignore the evidence that a large number of American prisoners, perhaps hundreds, were not returned by Hanoi at the end of the war — and that some of them may still be alive.
What happened on Tuesday was that the State Department released its answer to questions that had been posed the day before by reporters at a regular briefing. They had asked a department spokeswoman for the agency’s comments about recent reports, based on archival documents, that prisoners had been left behind in Laos.
The department’s answer first quoted from a 1993 Senate report that said “American officials did not have certain knowledge that any specific prisoner or prisoners were being left behind.”
The State Department followed this with its own new, divergent comment: “However, we cannot rule out the possibility that live Americans may be held in Laos.”
Then came another stunner, in which the State Department pointed its finger directly at Hanoi. It was a response that went beyond what the reporters had asked about at the briefing. It said: “505 Americans remain unaccounted for in Laos … However, more than 80 percent of the persons unaccounted for in Laos were actually lost in areas under the control of the North Vietnamese.”
This is the strongest language about unreturned POWs to emerge from official Washington since Operation Homecoming 21 years ago. That was in early 1973, when the peace agreements were signed and Hanoi sent back 591 men, contending these were the only prisoners they had. President Richard Nixon publicly accepted that explanation, in the face of powerful contradictory evidence. At the time, Nixon was caught in the turmoil of Watergate and was trying frantically to dump the Vietnam issue so he could focus on his cover-up troubles.
Since then, official Washington — in particular the intelligence community — has insisted there is no credible evidence that any men were left behind or are alive there today.
Here is a statement made only two months ago by Edward Ross, who heads the Pentagon’s MIA office, in a reference to Operation Homecoming: “The U.S. Government is confident that the 591 POWs and 30-something bodies of men who died in captivity were all the prisoners held in North Vietnam.”
It’s worth noting that Ross, perhaps as an “out,” narrows it to “held in North Vietnam.” Like all Pentagon statements in recent years on MIAs, his comment carefully says nothing about the possibility of prisoners in Laos. But back in 1973, amid Operation Homecoming, U.S. military intelligence publicly listed 311 men as missing in Laos and said most of them were believed to be living prisoners. The Vietnamese returned nine of these men. The Laotians returned none.
Laos has always been known as the “black hole.” One reason for the name was that, unlike Vietnam, the war there was covert and CIA-run. Another reason was the belief that, in addition to the men who specifically went missing in Laos, other prisoners were moved into the small, Hanoi-dominated country by the North Vietnamese to preserve the technical accuracy of Hanoi’s contention that no prisoners were being held on its soil.
I have digressed, for history’s sake, to underscore the unusualness of the State Department declaration that “we cannot rule out the possibility that live Americans may be held in Laos.” The statement is even more unusual for pointing out that 80 percent of the missing in Laos were lost “in areas under the control of the North Vietnamese.” This clearly suggests that Hanoi is the responsible party, and it belies all the recent Washington statements that Hanoi has been cooperating impressively on the MIA issue.
In short, the State Department declaration had all the obvious earmarks of an important news story, or at least one that needed reporting for the record.
My researcher, Carolina Miranda, made a database search of the leading newspapers. None of them, including Newsday, ran this story – not The New York Times, not The Washington Post, not the Los Angeles Times and not The Wall Street Journal. Not a word.
The only story we could find was the piece filed by the diplomatic correspondent for United Press International, Sid Balman Jr. His dispatch plainly noted the statement’s significance.
“It leaped out at me,” said Balman. “Clearly, they went out of their way to make these points about Laos — and about Hanoi.”
Yet no major paper picked up his dispatch. Not only that, but Balman’s colleagues at the other wire services ignored the story completely.
Alan Elsner of Reuters said he didn’t file anything because “I didn’t think it was a story in its own right.” George Gedda of the Associated Press said, “It must have just fallen through the cracks.”
These journalists are hardly alone. With but a few exceptions, the mainstream press — especially the Washington corps — has been ignoring this story vigorously for 20 years. Maybe it’s out of embarrassment; they might feel that picking it up now would be a mortifying admission of earlier failure.
Strange, isn’t it, that the press sent hundreds upon hundreds of reporters to cover the war in Vietnam and yet can’t find even a few to look into what happened to the men who went missing there.