Sydney H. Schanberg / The Nation – 2008-10-08 10:09:40
My Pursuit of the Story
I covered the war in Cambodia and Vietnam, but came to the POW information only slowly afterward, when military officers I knew from that conflict began coming to me with maps and POW sightings and depositions by Vietnamese witnesses.
I was then city editor of the New York Times, no longer involved in foreign or national stories, so I took the data to the appropriate desks and suggested it was material worth pursuing. There were no takers. Some years later, in 1991, when I was an op-ed columnist at Newsday, the aforementioned special Senate committee was formed to probe the POW issue. I saw this as an opening and immersed myself in the reporting.
At Newsday, I wrote thirty-five columns over a two-year period, as well as a four-part series on a trip I took to North Vietnam to report on what happened to one missing pilot who was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh trail and captured when he parachuted down. After Newsday, I wrote thousands more words on the subject for other outlets. Some of the pieces were about McCain’s key role.
Though I wrote on many subjects for Life, Vanity Fair and Washington Monthly, my POW articles appeared in Penthouse, the Village Voice and APBnews.com. Mainstream publications just weren’t interested. Their disinterest was part of what motivated me, and I became one of a very short list of journalists who considered the story important.
Serving in the army in Germany during the Cold War and witnessing combat first-hand as a reporter in India and Indochina led me to have great respect for those who fight for their country. To my mind, we dishonored US troops when our government failed to bring them home from Vietnam after the 591 others were released—and then claimed they didn’t exist. And politicians dishonor themselves when they pay lip service to the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers only to leave untold numbers behind, rationalizing to themselves that it’s merely one of the unfortunate costs of war.
John McCain—now campaigning for the White House as a war hero, maverick and straight shooter—owes the voters some explanations. The press were long ago wooed and won by McCain’s seeming openness, Lone Ranger pose and self-deprecating humor, which may partly explain their ignoring his record on POWs. In the numerous, lengthy McCain profiles that have appeared of late in papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, I may have missed a clause or a sentence along the way, but I have not found a single mention of his role in burying information about POWs. Television and radio news programs have been similarly silent.
Reporters simply never ask him about it. They didn’t when he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2000. They haven’t now, despite the fact that we’re in the midst of another war—a war he supports and one that has echoes of Vietnam.
The only explanation McCain has ever offered for his leadership on legislation that seals POW files is that he believes the release of such information would only stir up fresh grief for the families of those who were never accounted for in Vietnam. Of the scores of POW families I’ve met over the years, only a few have said they want the books closed without knowing what happened to their men. All the rest say that not knowing is exactly what grieves them.
Isn’t it possible that what really worries those intent on keeping the POW documents buried is the public disgust that the contents of those files would generate?
How the Senate Committee Perpetuated the Debunking
In its early months, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs gave the appearance of being committed to finding out the truth about the MIAs. As time went on, however, it became clear that they were cooperating in every way with the Pentagon and CIA, who often seemed to be calling the shots, even setting the agendas for certain key hearings. Both agencies held back the most important POW files. Dick Cheney was the Pentagon chief then; Robert Gates, now the Pentagon chief, was the CIA director.
Further, the committee failed to question any living president. Reagan declined to answer questions; the committee didn’t contest his refusal. Nixon was given a pass. George H.W. Bush, the sitting president, whose prints were all over this issue from his days as CIA chief in the 1970s, was never even approached.
Troubled by these signs, several committee staffers began asking why the agencies they should be probing had been turned into committee partners and decision makers. Memos to that effect were circulated. The staff made the following finding, using intelligence reports marked “credible” that covered POW sightings through 1989: “There can be no doubt that POWs were alive…as late as 1989.” That finding was never released. Eventually, much of the staff was in rebellion.
This internecine struggle (see coverage, at left) continued right up to the committee’s last official act—the issuance of its final report. The “Executive Summary,” which comprised the first forty-three pages—was essentially a whitewash, saying that only “a small number” of POWs could have been left behind in 1973 and that there was little likelihood that any prisoners could still be alive. The Washington press corps, judging from its coverage, seems to have read only this air-brushed summary, which had been closely controlled.
But the rest of the 1,221-page Report on POW/MIAs was quite different. Sprinkled throughout are pieces of hard evidence that directly contradict the summary’s conclusions. This documentation established that a significant number of prisoners were left behind—and that top government officials knew this from the start. These candid findings were inserted by committee staffers who had unearthed the evidence and were determined not to allow the truth to be sugar-coated.
If the Washington press corps did actually read the body of the report and then failed to report its contents, that would be a scandal of its own. The press would then have knowingly ignored the steady stream of findings in the body of the report that refuted the summary and indicated that the number of abandoned men was not small but considerable. The report gave no figures but estimates from various branches of the intelligence community ranged up to 600. The lowest estimate was 150.
Highlights of the report that undermine the benign conclusions of the Executive Summary:
* Pages 207-209: These three pages contain revelations of what appear to be either massive intelligence failures, or bad intentions—or both. The report says that until the committee brought up the subject in 1992, no branch of the intelligence community that dealt with analysis of satellite and lower-altitude photos had ever been informed of the specific distress signals US personnel were trained to use in the Vietnam war, nor had they ever been tasked to look for any such signals at all from possible prisoners on the ground.
The committee decided, however, not to seek a review of old photography, saying it “would cause the expenditure of large amounts of manpower and money with no expectation of success.” It might also have turned up lots of distress-signal numbers that nobody in the government was looking for from 1973 to 1991, when the committee opened shop. That would have made it impossible for the committee to write the Executive Summary it seemed determined to write.
The failure gets worse. The committee also discovered that the DIA, which kept the lists of authenticator numbers for pilots and other personnel, could not “locate” the lists of these codes for Army, Navy or Marine pilots. They had lost or destroyed the records. The Air Force list was the only one intact, as it had been preserved by a different intelligence branch.
The report concluded: “In theory, therefore, if a POW still living in captivity [today], were to attempt to communicate by ground signal, smuggling out a note or by whatever means possible, and he used his personal authenticator number to confirm his identity, the US Government would be unable to provide such confirmation, if his number happened to be among those numbers DIA cannot locate.”
It’s worth remembering that throughout the period when this intelligence disaster occurred—from the moment the treaty was signed in 1973 until 1991—the White House told the public that it had given the search for POWs and POW information the “highest national priority.”
* Page 13: Even in the Executive Summary, the report acknowledges the existence of clear intelligence, made known to government officials early on, that important numbers of captured US POWs were not on Hanoi’s repatriation list. After Hanoi released its list (showing only ten names from Laos—nine military men and one civilian), President Nixon sent a message on February 2, 1973, to Hanoi’s Prime Minister Pham Van Dong. saying: “US records show there are 317 American military men unaccounted for in Laos and it is inconceivable that only ten of these men would be held prisoner in Laos.”
Nixon was right. It was inconceivable. Then why did the president, less than two months later, on March 29, 1973, announce on national television that “all of our American POWs are on their way home”?
On April 13, 1973, just after all 591 men on Hanoi’s official list had returned to American soil, the Pentagon got into step with the president and announced that there was no evidence of any further live prisoners in Indochina (this is on page 248).
*Page 91: A lengthy footnote provides more confirmation of the White House’s knowledge of abandoned POWs. The footnote reads:
“In a telephone conversation with Select Committee Vice-Chairman Bob Smith on December 29, 1992, Dr. Kissinger said that he had informed President Nixon during the 60-day period after the peace agreement was signed that US intelligence officials believed that the list of prisoners captured in Laos was incomplete. According to Dr. Kissinger, the President responded by directing that the exchange of prisoners on the lists go forward, but added that a failure to account for the additional prisoners after Operation Homecoming would lead to a resumption of bombing. Dr. Kissinger said that the President was later unwilling to carry through on this threat.”
When Kissinger learned of the footnote while the final editing of the committee report was in progress, he and his lawyers lobbied fiercely through two Republican allies on the panel—one of them was John McCain—to get the footnote expunged. The effort failed. The footnote stayed intact.
* Pages 85-86: The committee report quotes Kissinger from his memoirs, writing solely in reference to prisoners in Laos: “We knew of at least 80 instances in which an American serviceman had been captured alive and subsequently disappeared. The evidence consisted either of voice communications from the ground in advance of capture or photographs and names published by the Communists. Yet none of these men was on the list of POWs handed over after the Agreement.”
Then why did he swear under oath to the committee in 1992 that he never had any information that specific, named soldiers were captured alive and hadn’t been returned by Vietnam?
* Page 89: In the middle of the prisoner repatriation and US troop-withdrawal process agreed to in the treaty, when it became clear that Hanoi was not releasing everyone it held, a furious chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Thomas Moorer, issued an order halting the troop withdrawal until Hanoi complied with the agreement. He cited in particular the known prisoners in Laos. The order was retracted by President Nixon the next day. In 1992, Moorer, by then retired, testified under oath to the committee that his order had received the approval of the President, the national security advisor and the secretary of defense. Nixon, however, in a letter to the committee, wrote: “I do not recall directing Admiral Moorer to send this cable.”
The report did not include the following information: Behind closed doors, a senior intelligence officer had testified to the POW committee that when Moorer’s order was rescinded, the angry admiral sent a “back-channel” message to other key military commanders telling them that Washington was abandoning known live prisoners. “Nixon and Kissinger are at it again,” he wrote. “SecDef and SecState have been cut out of the loop.”
In 1973, the witness was working in the office that processed this message. His name and his testimony are still classified. A source present for the testimony provided me with this information and also reported that in that same time period, Moorer had stormed into Defense Secretary Schlesinger’s office and, pounding on his desk, yelled: “The bastards have still got our men.” Schlesinger, in his own testimony to the committee a few months later, was asked about—and corroborated—this account.
*Pages 95-96: In early April 1973, Deputy Defense Secretary William Clements “summoned” Dr. Roger Shields, then head of the Pentagon’s POW/MIA Task Force, to his office to work out “a new public formulation” of the POW issue; now that the White House had declared all prisoners to have been returned, a new spin was needed. Shields, under oath, described the meeting to the committee. He said Clements told him: “All the American POWs are dead.” Shields said he replied: “You can’t say that.” Clements shot back: “You didn’t hear me. They are all dead.” Shields testified that at that moment he thought he was going to be fired, but he escaped from his boss’s office still holding his job.
*Pages 97-98: A couple of days later, on April 11, 1973, a day before Shields was to hold a Pentagon press conference on POWs, he and Gen. Brent Scowcroft, then the deputy national security advisor, went to the Oval Office to discuss the “new public formulation” and its presentation with President Nixon.
The next day, reporters right off asked Shields about missing POWs. Shields fudged his answers. He said: “We have no indications at this time that there are any Americans alive in Indochina.” But he went on to say that there had not been “a complete accounting” of those lost in Laos and that the Pentagon would press on to account for the missing—a seeming acknowledgement that some Americans were still alive and unaccounted for.
The press, however, seized on Shields’ denials. One headline read: “POW Unit Boss: No Living GIs Left in Indochina.”
*Page 97: The POW committee, knowing that Nixon taped all his meetings in the Oval Office, sought the tape of that April 11, 1973, Nixon-Shields-Scowcroft meeting to find out what Nixon had been told and what he had said about the evidence of POWs still in Indochina. The committee also knew there had been other White House meetings that centered on intelligence about live POWs. A footnote on page 97 states that Nixon’s lawyers said they would provide access to the April 11 tape “only if the Committee agreed not to seek any other White House recordings from this time period.” The footnote says that the committee rejected these terms and got nothing. The committee never made public this request for Nixon tapes until the brief footnote in its 1993 report.
None of this compelling evidence in the committee’s full report dislodged McCain from his contention that the whole POW issue was a concoction by deluded purveyors of a “conspiracy theory. But an honest review of the full report, combined with the other documentary evidence, tells the story of a frustrated and angry president, and his national security advisor, furious at being thwarted at the peace table by a small, much less powerful country that refused to bow to Washington’s terms. That President seems to have swallowed hard and accepted a treaty that left probably hundreds of American prisoners in Hanoi’s hands, to be used as bargaining chips for reparations.
Maybe Nixon and Kissinger told themselves that they could get the prisoners home after some time had passed. But perhaps it proved too hard to undo a lie as big as this one. Washington said no prisoners were left behind, and Hanoi swore it had returned all of them. How could either side later admit it had lied? Time went by and as neither side budged, telling the truth became even more difficult and remote. The public would realize that Washington knew of the abandoned men all along. The truth, after men had been languishing in foul prison cells, could get people impeached or thrown in jail.
Which brings us to today, when the Republican candidate for President is the contemporaneous politician most responsible for keeping the truth about his matter hidden. Yet he says he’s the right man to be the Commander-in-Chief, and his credibility in making this claim is largely based on his image as a POW hero.
On page 468 of the 1,221-page report, McCain parsed his POW position oddly: “We found no compelling evidence to prove that Americans are alive in captivity today. There is some evidence—though no proof—to suggest only the possibility that a few Americans may have been kept behind after the end of America’s military involvement in Vietnam.”
“Evidence though no proof.” Clearly, no one could meet McCain’s standard of proof as long as he is leading a government crusade to keep the truth buried.
To this reporter, this sounds like a significant story and a long overdue opportunity for the press to finally dig into the archives to set the historical record straight—and even pose some direct questions to the candidate.
Sydney H. Schanberg, a journalist for nearly 50 years, has written extensively on foreign affairs–particularly Asia–and on domestic issues such as ethics, racial problems, government secrecy, corporate excesses and the weaknesses of the national media.
Most of his journalism career has been spent on newspapers but his award-winning work has also appeared widely in other publications and media. The 1984 movie, The Killing Fields, which won several Academy Awards, was based on his book The Death and Life of Dith Pran – a memoir of his experiences covering the war in Cambodia for the New York Times and of his relationship with his Cambodian colleague, Dith Pran.
For his accounts of the fall of Cambodia to the Khmer Rouge in 1975, Schanberg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting “at great risk.” He is also the recipient of many other awards – including two George Polk awards, two Overseas Press Club awards and the Sigma Delta Chi prize for distinguished journalism.
Research support provided by the Investigative Fund of The Nation Institute. This is an expanded version, with primary documents attached, of a story that appears in the October 6, 2008 issue of The Nation.
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