Making ‘Negatives’ in the POW/MIA Case

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday January 4, 1994

Why would the executive assistant to the United States ambassador at the United Nations seek to interfere with a family’s quest to get information from the Pentagon about their missing relative, an Air Force major named Henry Serex, whose plane went down in Vietnam in 1972?

That is the subject of today’s column – and of my next column on Friday. This tale is emblematic of how the Pentagon has misled and deceived MIA families for 20 years.

Frances Zwenig, chief aide to UN Ambassador Madeleine Albright, made a phone call in early December to Carroll Lucas, a private photo-imagery analyst who once worked for the CIA.

Lucas has nothing remotely to do with the United Nations. He showed up in 1992 as part of the government’s efforts to debunk satellite photos that appeared quite clearly to show ground markings of known distress signals assigned to pilots. The person who invited him then to join the debunking campaign was Frances Zwenig.

At the time, Zwenig was staff director of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, working for the chairman, Sen. John Kerry. During her committee tenure, Zwenig compiled a record of trying to suppress all evidence showing that prisoners had been left behind and trying to breathe credibility into the Pentagon’s statements that no such evidence existed. When the committee’s final report was being written, Zwenig became the Pentagon’s conduit for slipping in a number of key debunking inserts, many of them patent falsehoods. None of the inserts identified the material as coming from the Pentagon; it looked like the committee’s own conclusions.

Zwenig searched out Lucas in the fall of 1992 in order to protect the Pentagon’s public position on satellite imagery, which was that the markings were nothing more than shadows and vegetation. Dozens of these images were examined by the committee. No matter how clear the distress symbols, the Pentagon parroted the same explanation: shadows and vegetation.

Some members of the committee wanted an independent opinion, and a highly regarded expert was found — Larry Burroughs, a retired Air Force colonel who had received the nation’s highest medal for intelligence work and became acting director of the highly secret National Photographic Interpretation Center. Burroughs also has a reputation of being truly independent.

This caused such nervousness within the debunking cabal that Zwenig was sent to find someone to counter Burroughs. She came up with Lucas, who works for a company called Autometric. When she found him, she wrote a memo to her boss, Kerry, saying: “Looks like Auto Metrics [sic] fills bill for expert on imagery — I am working on the script w/DIA. ”

The DIA is the Defense Intelligence Agency, an arm of the Pentagon. For the record, all of the citations in this column come from documents in the National Archives, where the committee sent its papers after closing down in January, 1993.

Burroughs and Lucas each did his own analysis of more than 40 photos taken in the years after Operation Homecoming in 1973, when Hanoi returned 591 prisoners and the White House said all the prisoners were home. Burroughs, in his report, concluded that several of the images were authentic distress markings. Lucas found not a single distress marking. Lucas’ findings and the Pentagon’s were identical.

More damaging, the committee’s documents show that Lucas, even before he had begun his examination of the imagery, told a committee staffer that he thought most of the symbols were “hoaxes.” The shocked staffer immediately composed a “memorandum for the record. ”

A few days later, as Lucas was just starting his work, he stated to two staffers that he “should have all the symbols negated within the time frame desired by the committee.” Another memo went into the record. Lucas must have believed that the entire committee staff was in on the rigging.

Now we can shift to the latest Zwenig-Lucas chapter. Nine months ago, the family of Maj. Henry Serex learned — not from the Pentagon, but from the “Larry King Live” television show — of the existence of a satellite photo that showed what appeared to be the letters S E R E X written into a field near a prison in North Vietnam. Also in this field appear the markings “72TA88.” T and A were distress letters that pilots were assigned in 1972, the year that Serex’ radar-jamming EB-66 was downed in Quang Tri province. The Pentagon lists Serex as presumed killed-in-action/body-not-recovered. The date of the satellite imagery was June 5, 1992. The Pentagon says there is nothing on the imagery but shadows and vegetation.

After months of holding off the Serex family, the Pentagon agreed to let them view some of the imagery taken that day. The session is set for next Monday. It’s not clear they’re going to be shown the frames that have the markings.

Zwenig, meanwhile, from her UN post, phoned Lucas and, according to people Lucas spoke to about the call, told him she was going to arrange for him to be at the Serex session. Again they were stacking the deck. Zwenig doesn’t deny the call. She says, cryptically, that she got involved “at the request of the [Clinton] administration” — without saying who asked her or what the purpose was.

The story continues.

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