POW Searchers Risk a Deal with Clinton

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday November 5, 1993

Anthony Lake, the president’s national security advisor, met late yesterday afternoon with a former senior CIA official who was in charge of intelligence on Vietnam. The former official, George A. Carver Jr., and others in a small, knowledgeable group met with Lake to apprise him of previously undisclosed documents about missing American prisoners in Vietnam.

In essence, this group, armed with hard evidence, is asking the Clinton White House to right a wrong that has already traversed five presidencies. They are asking him to be the first president to tell the American public that not all the prisoners held by Hanoi were returned after the Vietnam War and the first also to make a no-holds-barred effort to find out what happened to them.

The story goes back to 1973, when the peace accords were signed and Vietnam returned 591 prisoners, claiming that these were all the captives they had. President Richard Nixon, in his haste to get out of Vietnam, accepted Hanoi’s claim, at least publicly, and went on television to tell America that all our men had come home. And it was thus, 20 years ago, that the fiction began.

The group that met with Lake at the White House yesterday is pressing the president to take several bold steps. First, they seek a public statement by him confirming what even the available intelligence shows: that men were held back by Hanoi in 1973 (probably as bargaining chips for reparations). Beyond this, they are asking that the lid be taken off files and testimony and reconnaissance photographs and Nixon tapes that until now have been kept hidden from the public.

And they ask, further, that Clinton appoint a special independent commission to review the key materials and produce a definitive report on what happened to the prisoners and that until all this is accomplished, no further steps to normalize relations with Vietnam, such as lifting the economic embargo, be taken. As to the commission’s membership, the request is that it be composed of people with no connection to those in the defense and intelligence communities and in earlier White Houses who, out of fear of public reaction, have for two decades kept the wraps on this issue.

The group petitioning the White House includes not only intelligence officials like Carver but also relatives of missing men and other experts on MIA data. Among them are Carol Hrdlicka, whose husband has been missing in Laos since 1965; Barry Toll, formerly in high-level military intelligence and also special operations in Vietnam, and retired Lt. Gen. Eugene Tighe, who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War and afterward. Tighe, who is now bedridden but has reportedly communicated with the White House telephonically, said in one of his reports: “There is information…which establishes the strong possibility of American prisoners of war being held in Laos and Vietnam.” This was in 1986, 13 years after all the prisoners supposedly came home. Over the years, Tighe was the target of the “debunkers,” who tried to censor his reports and trash him personally to keep the information hidden.

Carver, too, carries very strong credentials. Among other posts held over a long government career, he was special assistant to three CIA directors on Vietnam intelligence specifically. He served in this position from 1966 through 1973, the year of the peace accords, and was thus in possession of our best intelligence on how many prisoners were in Hanoi’s hands. Carver reportedly believes that hundreds were not returned.

Yesterday’s meeting with national security adviser Lake grew out of an earlier one the group had, on Sept. 9, with another set of senior White House officials that included Lake’s No. 2, Sandy Berger, and Rod von Lipsey, special assistant to Mack McLarty, the president’s chief of staff. Also present for a good part of the hour-and-a-half session was David Gergen, counselor to the president.

At that first gathering, the Carver group was urged to turn over all its intelligence materials to the Clinton aides. They balked, saying that the sources for some of the data, still in government jobs and concerned about retribution, had insisted that the evidence be handed over only to President Bill Clinton himself. The compromise that was reached, through a series of telephone conversations and exchanged letters, was to turn over at least some of the data to Lake in the meeting yesterday.

It’s difficult to tell from the White House side of the letter exchange whether the Clinton people are serious about getting out the truth about the POWs or whether their conciliatory language is merely boilerplate. For example, in an Oct. 23 letter to Mrs. Hrdlicka agreeing to yesterday’s meeting, Lake gave no clues, saying merely: “I know that Sandy Berger and others have indicated to you our strong interest in reviewing whatever information you may have that could shed light on the POW issue.”

The members of the group realize there are risks involved in reaching out to the White House. They have seen Clinton twice ease the embargo against Vietnam since taking office. They are aware that a number of the Pentagon and intelligence officials who have spent their careers “debunking” POW information are still in place and that some have even been promoted.

So there is always the risk that if they turn over crucial intelligence information, it could simply be handed over to the debunkers to undergo the full trash-and-demean treatment.

Nonetheless, they feel Clinton is their best hope and they have decided to take the chance. There will be more in this space as the story unfolds.

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