POW Report Spins the Facts into Mush

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday January 15, 1993

The internally riven Senate committee on Vietnam POWs, whose work I’ve been writing about for some time, finally issued its report this week – and went out of business. The 2-inch-thick document is a testament to the reliable principle that one should never expect a congressional investigation to get to the bottom of anything.

Part of the reason in this case is that the committee was stampeded by a herd of powerful people and government agencies lobbying to rewrite history – from Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon to such as the Pentagon and the intelligence community. In a sense, it’s a wonder the report wasn’t even more of a disappointment than it is.

In a better world, the senators would have reviewed and endorsed the compelling evidence they had gathered over a period of 15 months that American prisoners were left behind when we signed the peace accords with Hanoi 20 years ago.

Yet when the crunch came, the committee chose to step back from its information. It said only, and weakly, that there was “evidence . . . that indicates the possibility of survival, at least for a small number” of prisoners, after Hanoi’s repatriation of 591 men in 1973.

The problem the committee faced was that if it told the truth about what happened in 1973 – simply put, that a number of men had indeed been left behind in Washington’s rush to get out of Vietnam – the panel would then have been compelled to explain in its report what had happened to these American soldiers.

You can see the quicksand the senators would have been in. Think of the questions that would have to have been raised and the 20-year-old wounds this would have opened. If the men were alive in 1973, were some alive into the 1980s? And if none are alive today (the committee majority used words like “possibility” and “hope,” but said there was “no compelling evidence that proves” there is anyone still in captivity), then when did they die and how? Were they executed? And why didn’t five successive presidents make it a national priority to rescue them?

Whole legions of Washington heavies could lose their reputations or careers if a harsh light were ever thrown on what they knew and why they didn’t act on it and tell the public about it.

The light thrown by the committee’s report is revealing but not harsh. To the credit of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, it has brought into the open a great deal of until-now classified information that establishes more than ever before the nonfeasance and malfeasance of our own government and the cruelty and intransigence of the governments in Vietnam and Laos. The paradox, however, is that having unearthed this large body of evidence and thus made possible for the first time a relatively clear look at the issue, the committee mushed it all together like oatmeal in that peculiar and disappointing Washington ritual known as achieving a consensus.

The information is there, if you’re willing to scratch and poke all the way through the more than 1,000 pages of this on-the-one-hand, on-the-other-hand report, but it has been watered down, toned down, softened and pablumized as if submitted to a blender. The committee calls it “achieving a balance.” Sometimes this balancing act reads like a group of nervous people trying not to face the oozing monster they have laudably dragged from the swamps of the capital’s hiding places.

Incidentally, the consensus was hardly seamless. Two members of the 12-person committee – ViceChairman Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Charles Grassley of Iowa – disputed the majority’s key finding that on the issue of any present-day survivors, the evidence did not provide “grounds for encouragement.” The two senators wrote, in a footnote, that they “dissent from this statement because they believe that live-sighting reports and other sources of intelligence are evidence that POWs may have survived to the present.”

Back and forth the report swings. Here’s some satellite imagery of what appear to be distress signals on the ground. Ah, but the Defense Intelligence Agency, a branch of the Pentagon with a 20-year debunking mentality, says it’s a mirage – just some “shadows, ridges or trees.” Hundreds of times, the DIA finds just shadows and vegetation.

On Page 30, the report says: “During its investigation, the Committee was surprised by statements from DIA and CIA imagery analysts directly involved in POW/MIA work that they were not very knowledgeable about the military’s Escape and Evasion {distress} signals or, in some cases, even aware of the program.” Powerful stuff. But a page later, the DIA version is added: “DIA contends that many DIA analysts are well aware of E & E signals and have worked with the agency’s {CIA’s} analysts for years, searching for E & E signals.”

Oh, yes, there have also been a number of National Security Agency intercepts of radio messages about the movement of prisoners, particularly in Laos. But the report says the DIA generally showed no interest in this evidence.

More yin and yang: The POWs were not “knowingly abandoned,” the report says, only “shunted aside.” This may strike some people – the families of the missing men, perhaps – as a distinction without a difference.

Still more: The report repeatedly praises the White House and other officials and agencies of the executive branch for their cooperation in declassifying needed materials. Until you get to Page 38, where it says that the committee’s “request for the release of relevant CIA operational files has, to date, been denied.”

It’s a pity this report, with all its balance, doesn’t have more spine. What did happen to those left-behind men?

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