What is the POW Probe Hiding from Us?

By Sydney H. Schanberg

Published in New York Newsday August 27, 1993

The most constant truth about the MIA story is the determination in both Hanoi and Washington to continue covering up the truth.

When the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs concluded its 15-month inquiry this year, it promised to make public all the testimony and documents the committee had collected. That pledge is in its final report, on page 450, which said “all Committee documents are available” at the National Archives. Even before the report came out, the committee chairman, Sen. John Kerry, made the full-disclosure assurance to me in a phone conversation.

That was early January. This is late August, nearly seven months after the promise. And key committee materials are still being held back — including testimony by a Pentagon intelligence officer about the transfer of American prisoners from Indochina to the Soviet Union, via Eastern Europe.

There’s really nothing new in this. Crucial intelligence records have been held back from the start of this story in 1973 to keep the public from comprehending the reality that a significant number — possibly hundreds — of American prisoners were not returned by North Vietnam after the peace accords. The record now shows that Richard Nixon, his presidency threatened by Watergate, sought a hasty exit from the Vietnam War and, to cover the embarrassment of abandoned prisoners, publicly announced that all the POWs had been repatriated.

The senate POW/MIA committee was following in this tradition when it wrote its report, which ignored key evidence and watered down the findings to the point of meaninglessness. Now it has colluded in the withholding of information the committee itself had gathered.

The testimony on POWs being shipped through Eastern Europe to the Soviet Union was given to the committee by Jan Sejna, a former Czechoslovak major general who defected in 1968 and now works in a sensitive post for the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. He said he had personal knowledge of 90 such men being transported by this method through Prague. His testimony flatly contradicts the Pentagon’s continued insistence that it has “no credible evidence” of such prisoner transfers. The committee’s report makes only the briefest mention of Sejna’s information, in a paragraph on page 426, and takes no note of its clash with the Pentagon position.

Sejna, who was cleared for sensitive work at the DIA only after being given polygraph tests to determine his credibility and loyalty, gave his committee testimony in a session that was closed to the public. When researchers went looking for the transcript at the National Archives after the committee went out of business, they could not find it.

Materials related to other key witnesses are also missing. These also relate to the shipment of prisoners to the Soviet Union and other destinations.

I asked Sen. Kerry’s office what had happened specifically to the Senja testimony. His press secretary, Larry Carpman, said the testimony was on videotape in “Bin 9” at the archives and was available. I checked and told him it wasn’t available. That was three weeks ago. He hasn’t.

I have since learned from the archivists that the committee sent over its materials in two separate categories. One batch was “open records” and the other was data that someone had ordered classified. This was apparently done either by the CIA or DIA with the committee’s cooperation. The full-disclosure promise was a sham.

I have done considerable research and written a great deal about the MIA story over the past year or so. The subject tends to embarrass many average Americans who want to forget about Vietnam and all its shames.

Also, 20 years have passed and people tend not to remember things that were on page one publicly that our intelligence data showed that the prisoner list given us by Hanoi was shockingly incomplete.

People also forget stories that appeared on page one only last year — like the sworn testimony before the Senate committee of two former defense secretaries in the Nixon administration, Melvin Laird and James Schlesinger. Both these men said they believed in 1973, from strong intelligence, that a number of American prisoners in Vietnam and Laos had not been returned. Their testimony has not been challenged. Schlesinger, before becoming defense secretary, had been the CIA director.

During his committee appearance, Schlesinger was asked why Nixon would have accepted the prisoners-not-returned situation in 1973. He replied: “One must assume that we had concluded that the bargaining position of the United States… was quite weak. We were anxious to get our troops out and we were not going to roil the waters…”

Then he was asked “a very simple question. In your view, did we leave men behind?”

“I think that as of now,” replied the former defense secretary, “that I can come to no other conclusion… some were left behind.”

His testimony is neither paranoid myth nor conspiracy theory. It’s merely a description of what happened in 1973.

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