The Photo: Shadow or MIA Signal?

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday January 7, 1994

This is the story of what has become known in the world of Vietnam MIA evidence as the SEREX satellite photo, a picture the Pentagon has tried mightily, and with much artifice, to discredit.

As mentioned in my last column, Henry (Mick) Serex was an Air Force major with the job description of electronic warfare officer. While on a radar-jamming mission over the DMZ on April 2, 1972, his EB-66 communications plane, with crew of six, was hit and downed by a ground-to-air missile. Only one survivor was rescued at the time, the navigator, Lt. Col. Iceal Hambleton. The Pentagon listed the five other crewmen, including Serex, first as missing in action and then, after six years, as dead.

Like so many MIA families, Serex’s wife, Barbara, and two daughters, Jennifer and Katheryn, received short shrift from the Pentagon, which gave them only the barest bits of information.

That was still the state of the family’s knowledge when a Senate select committee began looking into the MIA issue in late 1991. At a hearing in 1992, the committee took up the evidence of satellite photos that showed apparent MIA distress signals marked into the ground in both Vietnam and Laos. One such photo showed what appeared to be an MIA’s name. This testimony came from Robert Dussault, a government expert who devises distress symbols and trains pilots in how to use them. In his public appearance before the committee in October, 1992, Dussault was specifically asked not to give the name of the MIA he found on the photo. The name, drawn on the ground in capital letters, did not get out for another six months. It was S-E-R-E-X.

The Pentagon never told the Serex family about this photo, which had been recorded by satellite on June 5, 1992, four months before the committee hearings. What the Pentagon did do, however, was to say that Dussault didn’t know what he was talking about. Its experts at the Defense Intelligence Agency, said the Pentagon, had found conclusively that the distress markings Dussault thought he had seen were only shadows and vegetation.

But grass and furrows and shadows are exactly the explanations the Pentagon has been giving for 20 years, ever since the war ended amid compelling evidence that a large number of American prisoners had not been returned. Every time the satellite imagery seems to show a name or a distress symbol or the secret four-digit authenticator number of a particular pilot, the DIA immediately steps in to say that it’s only shadows and natural contours. Sometimes they call the distress symbols a “photo anomaly” — meaning something you see but really isn’t there. Independent experts in photo analysis consider this a bad joke, saying that when you see something it’s usually real.

Dussault came across the SEREX photo on Aug. 13, 1992, while at the Central Intelligence Agency’s headquarters. He had been invited there to brief CIA photo interpreters on his area of expertise – distress signals. Early in his career, Dussault was also schooled in photo imagery. Now he is the deputy director of a Pentagon unit called JSSA ­Joint Services SERE Agency. The SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. While he was briefing the CIA men, they brought out several satellite photos to show him some of the areas they had photographed. Among the photos was a blown-up print, about 2 feet by 2-1/2, of a piece of a field alongside the Dong Vai prison in North Vietnam. “My eyebrows went way up,” Dussault told someone later.

On the photo, he saw not only the letters S-E-R-E-X but a string of nine or 10 numbers above it and a legend below it that read “72TA88.” T and A, said Dussault, were distress letters assigned to pilots in 1972, the year Serex went down. Struck hard by the photo, he circled the symbols in red ink.

At first, Dussault didn’t realize SEREX could be a name. He thought it might be a pilot using the JSSA’s survival acronym, SERE. It nagged at him, though, so he went and checked the list of missing men. And there was Henry Muir Serex.

But then, suddenly, the CIA fell in line with the Pentagon. A month or so after his briefing, it told Dussault that what he had seen was a mirage.

Dussault described the before and after in testimony to the Senate committee: “The CIA guys … said look, we saw the numbers. They admitted seeing the same numbers I did. When I circled it, they were right there and they said yeah, we saw it. But when we met a week ago, two weeks ago … they briefed the fact that they tried to go back to the original … they did a digital on this thing, looked at it on a light table, and it wasn’t there … that stuff wasn’t there. “The CIA told him, he said, “it must have been an anomaly, photographic anomaly.”

This same division over what was there and what was an “anomaly” extended to all the satellite evidence brought before the Senate committee — more than 40 different sets of ground markings. The panel sought to defuse the controversy by bringing in an independent expert. They found Larry Burroughs, retired from Washington service where he had headed the government’s main imagery lab, the National Photographic Interpretation Center, an arm of the CIA. The Pentagon sympathizers on the committee, however, wanted someone more to their liking and hired Carroll Lucas, a private analyst who had done a lot of work for the Pentagon.

The results were not surprising. Burroughs found several authentic distress markings. Lucas said they were all shadows and vegetation.

The SEREX photo was not among the 40 or so images they were given to examine, perhaps because the particular image that showed the SEREX markings was not provided by the CIA or Pentagon. As experts will tell you, a satellite, as it scans over an area, will record many images of the same section over a period of time, say an hour. Differences in angle and time of day will produce quite different images, and all of the images are authentic. Just because a shape or marking does not show in one frame does not mean it doesn’t exist.

In any event, though Burroughs and Lucas were not shown the specific image Dussault saw, they did examine a number of images from fields close by. Lucas found only shadows and vegetation. Burroughs found several markings, including one — “GX2527” — that matched the distress letters and secret four-digit number of Air Force Col. Peter Matthes, missing since 1969. Burroughs said a number of the symbols around Dong Vai prison seemed to be old, and he recommended the use of special photo processing techniques. The Dong Vai prison is no longer being used, but in the late 1970s — long after 1973, when Hanoi said it had returned all prisoners — U.S. intelligence received reports from local sources in that area who said Americans were being held in that facility.

While none of Dussault’s or Burroughs’ findings on the SEREX or other photos prove conclusively that the specific men indicated in the markings actually made the distress symbols themselves or that they are alive today, these markings, if authentic, had to have been made by men familiar with the assigned symbols and code numbers — that is, by American prisoners.

Despite all the official activity on the SEREX photo, the family was still given no information. It was not until April 15, 1993, nearly a year after the image was recorded, that they learned of its existence ­ not from the Pentagon but from a television talk show where the photo was cited by former congressman Billy Hendon, an MIA activist.

From that moment, this distressed family– the two now-grown daughters and their mother, Barbara, who remarried after the Pentagon declared her husband dead — has been pushing Washington for a chance to view the satellite imagery.

Helping the family deal with the Pentagon is Sen. Bob Smith of New Hampshire, who was vice chairman of the Senate committee and is the most active member of Congress in trying to pry MIA information out of the intelligence establishment. Smith himself viewed the SEREX imagery and saw the distress signals on a visit to a government imagery center in November 1992.

Yet even with Smith demanding that the family requests be granted, the Pentagon dug in its heels.

For example, the family, in letters and phone calls, asked the Pentagon to let them view the precise blow-up SEREX print on which Robert Dussault circled the symbols in red ink. They also asked to see all digital satellite imagery plus negatives and positives related to that exact photo.

The Pentagon agreed to a meeting — set for next Monday — but it completely ignored the family’s requests to view this photo. Instead, Edward Ross, who heads the Pentagon’s POW/MIA office, and his deputy, Col. Joseph Schlatter, both of whom have spent years in efforts to debunk MIA evidence, responded in a Dec. 30 memo sent to the family that “photo analysts do not use ‘positives or negatives’ or prints when analyzing imagery” because these “are not suitable for serious analytical work.” They said they would be showing the family only “the Primary Imagery Record and computer-assisted enhancements.” This primary record is a reference to the satellite’s system of transforming light signals into digital signals, which are then displayed and enhanced at high-resolution workstations that are like very advanced television units.

The memo’s edict about what materials were not usable for analysis was as close to a flat-out lie as any gobbledygook can get. What Ross and Schlatter, neither of whom has any training in photo imagery, forgot to mention was that analysts use not only the digital images on high-resolution workstations but concurrently transform the digital images into negatives and positives and 3-D images and view these film images on light tables. They also forgot to mention that specialists who might be hostile to their visitors’ goals can, on those workstations, change the color and contrast and fix it through massive enlargement so that all the markings suddenly blur and disappear.

Ross and Schlatter apparently also forgot the testimony that then-Assistant Secretary of Defense Duane Andrews, a trained photo interpreter, gave to the Senate committee on Oct. 15, 1992. Andrews explained that imagery experts need and work with precisely the materials the Serex family had asked for — film negatives, film positives and 3-D images. He said that the digital signals produced these materials by projecting “laser light onto a film negative,” with other techniques being used “to view the image as if it were in three dimensions.”

In short, imagery-trained Andrews defined as important all the materials that Ross and Schlatter, untrained, said “are not suitable for serious analytical work.”

In the last few days, pressure on the Pentagon has increased ­ from the family and Sen. Smith. There has also been fallout from my earlier column, which triggered other press queries.

Thus, on Tuesday, only five days after the Dec. 30 rejection, Schlatter called Jennifer Serex-Helwig and told her the family would be shown all the materials they had asked for.

The meeting is scheduled for Monday afternoon in Washington, with the Serex family flying in from the West Coast. Smith and Dussault and Burroughs will be there at the request of the family. The Pentagon will produce an array of officials. Schlatter also told Jennifer Serex-Helwig that Lucas, the photo interpreter who does consulting for the Pentagon and who always finds nothing but shadows and vegetation, was being invited as well.

Jennifer Serex-Helwig, a mother of three who also works, says the struggle with the Pentagon has left her very stressed. “I have a hard time sleeping,” she said by phone from Sacramento. “I wake up composing letters to the president. I find myself in the shower at six in the morning bawling my eyes out and talking to my dad, saying I’m sorry for what happened to him. It’s been very hard.”

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