McCain and the POW Cover-up
The "war hero" candidate buried
information about POWs left behind in Vietnam
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
By Sydney H. Schanberg
22/09/08 -- -
The Nation - -September 18, 2008 -- John
McCain, who has risen to political prominence on his image as a
Vietnam POW war hero, has, inexplicably, worked very hard to
hide from the public stunning information about American
prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn't return home.
Throughout his Senate career, McCain has quietly sponsored and
pushed into federal law a set of prohibitions that keep the most
revealing information about these men buried as classified
documents. Thus the war hero who people would logically imagine
as a determined crusader for the interests of POWs and their
families became instead the strange champion of hiding the
evidence and closing the books.
Almost as striking is the manner in which the mainstream press
has shied from reporting the POW story and McCain's role in it,
even as the Republican Party has made McCain's military service
the focus of his presidential campaign. Reporters who had
covered the Vietnam War turned their heads and walked in other
directions. McCain doesn't talk about the missing men, and the
press never asks him about them.
The sum of the secrets McCain has sought to hide is not small.
There exists a telling mass of official documents, radio
intercepts, witness depositions, satellite photos of rescue
symbols that pilots were trained to use, electronic messages
from the ground containing the individual code numbers given to
airmen, a rescue mission by a special forces unit that was
aborted twice by Washington—and even sworn testimony by two
Defense secretaries that "men were left behind." This imposing
body of evidence suggests that a large number—the documents
indicate probably hundreds—of the US prisoners held by Vietnam
were not returned when the peace treaty was signed in January
1973 and Hanoi released 591 men, among them Navy combat pilot
John S. McCain.
Mass of Evidence
The Pentagon had been withholding significant information from
POW families for years. What's more, the Pentagon's POW/MIA
operation had been publicly shamed by internal whistleblowers
and POW families for holding back documents as part of a policy
of "debunking" POW intelligence even when the information was
The pressure from the families and Vietnam veterans finally
forced the creation, in late 1991, of a Senate Select Committee
on POW/MIA Affairs. The chairman was John Kerry. McCain, as a
former POW, was its most pivotal member. In the end, the
committee became part of the debunking machine.
One of the sharpest critics of the Pentagon's performance was an
insider, Air Force Lieut. Gen. Eugene Tighe, who headed the
Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) during the 1970s. He openly
challenged the Pentagon's position that no live prisoners
existed, saying that the evidence proved otherwise. McCain was a
bitter opponent of Tighe, who was eventually pushed into
Included in the evidence that McCain and his government allies
suppressed or sought to discredit is a transcript of a senior
North Vietnamese general's briefing of the Hanoi politburo,
discovered in Soviet archives by an American scholar in 1993.
The briefing took place only four months before the 1973 peace
accords. The general, Tran Van Quang, told the politburo members
that Hanoi was holding 1,205 American prisoners but would keep
many of them at war's end as leverage to ensure getting war
reparations from Washington.
Throughout the Paris negotiations, the North Vietnamese tied the
prisoner issue tightly to the issue of reparations. They were
adamant in refusing to deal with them separately. Finally, in a
February 2, 1973, formal letter to Hanoi's premier, Pham Van
Dong, Nixon pledged $3.25 billion in "postwar reconstruction"
aid "without any political conditions." But he also attached to
the letter a codicil that said the aid would be implemented by
each party "in accordance with its own constitutional
provisions." That meant Congress would have to approve the
appropriation, and Nixon and Kissinger knew well that Congress
was in no mood to do so. The North Vietnamese, whether or not
they immediately understood the double-talk in the letter,
remained skeptical about the reparations promise being honored -
and it never was. Hanoi thus appears to have held back
prisoners—just as it had done when the French were defeated at
Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and withdrew their forces from Vietnam. In
that case, France paid ransoms for prisoners and brought them
In a private briefing in 1992, high-level CIA officials told me
that as the years passed and the ransom never came, it became
more and more difficult for either government to admit that it
knew from the start about the unacknowledged prisoners. Those
prisoners had not only become useless as bargaining chips but
also posed a risk to Hanoi's desire to be accepted into the
international community. The CIA officials said their
intelligence indicated strongly that the remaining men—those who
had not died from illness or hard labor or torture—were
My own research, detailed below, has convinced me that it is not
likely that more than a few—if any—are alive in captivity today.
(That CIA briefing at the agency's Langley, Virginia,
headquarters was conducted "off the record," but because the
evidence from my own reporting since then has brought me to the
same conclusion, I felt there was no longer any point in not
writing about the meeting.)
For many reasons, including the absence of a political
constituency for the missing men other than their families and
some veterans' groups, very few Americans are aware of the POW
story and of McCain's role in keeping it out of public view and
denying the existence of abandoned POWs. That is because McCain
has hardly been alone in his campaign to hide the scandal.
The Arizona Senator, now the Republican candidate for President,
has actually been following the lead of every White House since
Richard Nixon's and thus of every CIA director, Pentagon chief
and national security advisor, not to mention Dick Cheney, who
was George H. W. Bush's defense secretary. Their biggest
accomplice has been an indolent press, particularly in
An early and critical McCain secrecy move involved 1990
legislation that started in the House of Representatives. A
brief and simple document, it was called "the Truth Bill" and
would have compelled complete transparency about prisoners and
missing men. Its core sentence reads: "[The] head of each
department or agency which holds or receives any records and
information, including live-sighting reports, which have been
correlated or possibly correlated to United States personnel
listed as prisoner of war or missing in action from World War
II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam conflict, shall make
available to the public all such records held or received by
that department or agency."
The Truth Bill
(click image to download)
The McCain Bill
(click image to download)
Bitterly opposed by the Pentagon (and thus McCain), the
bill went nowhere. Reintroduced the following year, it again
disappeared. But a few months later, a new measure, known as
"the McCain Bill," suddenly appeared. By creating a bureaucratic
maze from which only a fraction of the documents could
emerge—only records that revealed no POW secrets—it turned the
Truth Bill on its head. (See one example, at left, when the
Pentagon cited McCain's bill in rejecting a FOIA request.) The
McCain bill became law in 1991 and remains so today. So crushing
to transparency are its provisions that it actually spells out
for the Pentagon and other agencies several rationales,
scenarios and justifications for not releasing any information
at all—even about prisoners discovered alive in captivity. Later
that year, the Senate Select Committee was created, where Kerry
and McCain ultimately worked together to bury evidence.
DOD cites the
McCain Bill in denying a FOIA request
(click image to download)
McCain was also instrumental in amending the Missing Service
Personnel Act, which had been strengthened in 1995 by POW
advocates to include criminal penalties, saying: "Any government
official who knowingly and willfully withholds from the file of
a missing person any information relating to the disappearance
or whereabouts and status of a missing person shall be fined as
provided in Title 18 or imprisoned not more than one year or
both." A year later, in a closed House-Senate conference on an
unrelated military bill, McCain, at the behest of the Pentagon,
attached a crippling amendment to the act, stripping out its
only enforcement teeth, the criminal penalties, and reducing the
obligations of commanders in the field to speedily search for
missing men and to report the incidents to the Pentagon.
About the relaxation of POW/MIA obligations on commanders in the
field, a public McCain memo said: "This transfers the
bureaucracy involved out of the [battle] field to Washington."
He wrote that the original legislation, if left intact, "would
accomplish nothing but create new jobs for lawyers and turn
military commanders into clerks."
McCain argued that keeping the criminal penalties would have
made it impossible for the Pentagon to find staffers willing to
work on POW/MIA matters. That's an odd argument to make. Were
staffers only "willing to work" if they were allowed to conceal
POW records? By eviscerating the law, McCain gave his stamp of
approval to the government policy of debunking the existence of
McCain has insisted again and again that all the
evidence—documents, witnesses, satellite photos, two Pentagon
chiefs' sworn testimony, aborted rescue missions, ransom offers
apparently scorned—has been woven together by unscrupulous
deceivers to create an insidious and unpatriotic myth. He calls
it the "bizarre rantings of the MIA hobbyists." He has regularly
vilified those who keep trying to pry out classified documents
as "hoaxers," charlatans," "conspiracy theorists" and
Some of McCain's fellow captives at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi
didn't share his views about prisoners left behind. Before he
died of leukemia in 1999, retired Col. Ted Guy, a highly admired
POW and one of the most dogged resisters in the camps, wrote an
angry open letter to the senator in an MIA newsletter—a response
to McCain's stream of insults hurled at MIA activists. Guy
wrote: "John, does this [the insults] include Senator Bob Smith
[a New Hampshire Republican and activist on POW issues] and
other concerned elected officials? Does this include the
families of the missing where there is overwhelming evidence
that their loved ones were 'last known alive'? Does this include
some of your fellow POWs?"
It's not clear whether the taped confession McCain gave to
his captors to avoid further torture has played a role in his
post-war behavior in the Senate. That confession was played
endlessly over the prison loudspeaker system at Hoa Lo—to try to
break down other prisoners—and was broadcast over Hanoi's state
radio. Reportedly, he confessed to being a war criminal who had
bombed civilian targets. The Pentagon has a copy of the
confession but will not release it. Also, no outsider I know of
has ever seen a non-redacted copy of the debriefing of McCain
when he returned from captivity, which is classified but could
be made public by McCain. (See the Pentagon's rejection of my
attempt to obtain records of this debriefing, at left.)
DOD denies access
to McCain's 1973 debriefing
(click image to download)
All humans have breaking points. Many men undergoing torture
give confessions, often telling huge lies so their fakery will
be understood by their comrades and their country. Few will
fault them. But it was McCain who apparently felt he had
disgraced himself and his military family. His father, John S.
McCain II, was a highly regarded rear admiral then serving as
commander of all US forces in the Pacific. His grandfather was
also a rear admiral.
In his bestselling 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers,
McCain says he felt bad throughout his captivity because he knew
he was being treated more leniently than his fellow POWs, owing
to his high-ranking father and thus his propaganda value. Other
prisoners at Hoa Lo say his captors considered him a prize catch
and called him the "Crown Prince," something McCain acknowledges
in the book.
Also in this memoir, McCain expresses guilt at having broken
under torture and given the confession. "I felt faithless and
couldn't control my despair," he writes, revealing that he made
two "feeble" attempts at suicide. (In later years, he said he
tried to hang himself with his shirt and guards intervened.)
Tellingly, he says he lived in "dread" that his father would
find out about the confession. "I still wince," he writes, "when
I recall wondering if my father had heard of my disgrace."
He says that when he returned home, he told his father about the
confession, but "never discussed it at length"—and the Admiral,
who died in 1981, didn't indicate he had heard anything about it
before. But he had. In the 1999 memoir, the senator writes: "I
only recently learned that the tape...had been broadcast outside
the prison and had come to the attention of my father."
Is McCain haunted by these memories? Does he suppress POW
information because its surfacing would rekindle his feelings of
shame? On this subject, all I have are questions.
Many stories have been written about McCain's explosive temper,
so volcanic that colleagues are loathe to speak openly about it.
One veteran congressman who has observed him over the years
asked for confidentiality and made this brief comment: "This is
a man not at peace with himself."
He was certainly far from calm on the Senate POW committee. He
browbeat expert witnesses who came with information about
unreturned POWs. Family members who have personally faced McCain
and pressed him to end the secrecy also have been treated to his
legendary temper. He has screamed at them, insulted them,
brought women to tears. Mostly his responses to them have been
versions of: How dare you question my patriotism? In 1996, he
roughly pushed aside a group of POW family members who had
waited outside a hearing room to appeal to him, including a
mother in a wheelchair.
But even without answers to what may be hidden in the recesses
of McCain's mind, one thing about the POW story is clear: If
American prisoners were dishonored by being written off and left
to die, that's something the American public ought to know
10 Key Pieces of Evidence That Men Were Left Behind
1. In Paris, where the Vietnam peace treaty was negotiated,
the United States asked Hanoi for the list of American prisoners
to be returned, fearing that Hanoi would hold some prisoners
back. The North Vietnamese refused, saying they would produce
the list only after the treaty was signed. Nixon agreed with
Kissinger that they had no leverage left, and Kissinger signed
the accord on January 27, 1973, without the prisoner list. When
Hanoi produced its list of 591 prisoners the next day, US
intelligence agencies expressed shock at the low number. Their
number was hundreds higher. The New York Times published
a long, page-one story on February 2, 1973, about the
discrepancy, especially raising questions about the number of
prisoners held in Laos, only nine of whom were being returned.
The headline read, in part: "Laos POW List Shows 9 from US
—Document Disappointing to Washington as 311 Were Believed
Missing." And the story, by John Finney, said that other
Washington officials "believe the number of prisoners [in Laos]
is probably substantially higher." The paper never followed up
with any serious investigative reporting—nor did any other
mainstream news organization.
New York Times,
Feb. 2, 1973
(click image to download)
2. Two defense secretaries who served during the Vietnam War
testified to the Senate POW committee in September 1992 that
prisoners were not returned. James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird,
both speaking at a public session and under oath, said they
based their conclusions on strong intelligence data—letters,
eyewitness reports, even direct radio contacts. Under
questioning, Schlesinger chose his words carefully,
understanding clearly the volatility of the issue: "I think that
as of now that I can come to no other conclusion...some were
left behind." This ran counter to what President Nixon told the
public in a nationally televised speech on March 29, 1973, when
the repatriation of the 591 was in motion: "Tonight," Nixon
said, "the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally
come. For the first time in twelve years, no American military
forces are in Vietnam. All our American POWs are on their way
home." Documents unearthed since then show that aides had
already briefed Nixon about the contrary evidence.
Schlesinger was asked by the Senate committee for his
explanation of why President Nixon would have made such a
statement when he knew Hanoi was still holding prisoners. 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..." This testimony struck me as a bombshell. The
New York Times appropriately reported it on page one but
again there was no sustained follow-up by the Times or
any other major paper or national news outlet.
3. Over the years, the DIA received more than 1,600 first-hand
sightings of live American prisoners and nearly 14,000
second-hand reports. Many witnesses interrogated by CIA or
Pentagon intelligence agents were deemed "credible" in the
agents' reports. Some of the witnesses were given lie-detector
tests and passed. Sources provided me with copies of these
witness reports, which are impressive in their detail. A lot of
the sightings described a secondary tier of prison camps many
miles from Hanoi. Yet the DIA, after reviewing all these
reports, concluded that they "do not constitute evidence" that
men were alive.
4. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, listening stations picked
up messages in which Laotian military personnel spoke about
moving American prisoners from one labor camp to another. These
listening posts were manned by Thai communications officers
trained by the National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors
signals worldwide. The NSA teams had moved out after the fall of
Saigon in 1975 and passed the job to the Thai allies. But when
the Thais turned these messages over to Washington, the
intelligence community ruled that since the intercepts were made
by a "third party"—namely Thailand—they could not be regarded as
authentic. That's some Catch-22: The US trained a third party to
take over its role in monitoring signals about POWs, but because
that third party did the monitoring, the messages weren't valid.
Here, from CIA files, is an example that clearly exposes the
farce. On December 27, 1980, a Thai military signal team picked
up a message saying that prisoners were being moved out of
Attopeu (in southern Laos) by aircraft "at 1230 hours." Three
days later a message was sent from the CIA station in Bangkok to
the CIA director's office in Langley. It read, in part: "The
prisoners...are now in the valley in permanent location (a
prison camp at Nhommarath in Central Laos). They were
transferred from Attopeu to work in various places...POWs were
formerly kept in caves and are very thin, dark and starving."
Apparently the prisoners were real. But the transmission was
declared "invalid" by Washington because the information came
from a "third party" and thus could not be deemed credible.
5. A series of what appeared to be distress signals from Vietnam
and Laos were captured by the government's satellite system in
the late 1980s and early '90s. (Before that period, no search
for such signals had been put in place.) Not a single one of
these markings was ever deemed credible. To the layman's eye,
the satellite photos, some of which I've seen, show markings on
the ground that are identical to the signals that American
pilots had been specifically trained to use in their survival
courses—such as certain letters, like X or K, drawn in a special
way. Other markings were the secret four-digit authenticator
numbers given to individual pilots. But time and again, the
Pentagon, backed by the CIA, insisted that humans had not made
these markings. What were they, then? "Shadows and vegetation,"
the government said, insisting that the markings were merely
normal topographical contours like saw-grass or rice-paddy
divider walls. It was the automatic response—shadows and
vegetation. On one occasion, a Pentagon photo expert refused to
go along. It was a missing man's name gouged into a field, he
said, not trampled grass or paddy berms. His bosses responded by
bringing in an outside contractor who found instead, yes,
shadows and vegetation. This refrain led Bob Taylor, a highly
regarded investigator on the Senate committee staff who had
examined the photographic evidence, to comment to me: "If grass
can spell out people's names and a secret digit codes, then I
have a newfound respect for grass."
6. On November 11, 1992, Dolores Alfond, the sister of missing
airman Capt. Victor Apodaca and chair of the National Alliance
of Families, an organization of relatives of POW/MIAs, testified
at one of the Senate committee's public hearings. She asked for
information about data the government had gathered from
electronic devices used in a classified program known as PAVE
The devices were motion sensors, dropped by air, designed to
pick up enemy troop movements. Shaped on one end like a spike
with an electronic pod and antenna on top, they were designed to
stick in the ground as they fell. Air Force planes would drop
them along the Ho Chi Minh trail and other supply routes. The
devices, though primarily sensors, also had rescue capabilities.
Someone on the ground—a downed airman or a prisoner on a labor
gang —could manually enter data into the sensor. All data were
regularly collected electronically by US planes flying overhead.
Alfond stated, without any challenge or contradiction by the
committee, that in 1974, a year after the supposedly complete
return of prisoners, the gathered data showed that a person or
people had manually entered into the sensors—as US pilots had
been trained to do—"no less than 20 authenticator numbers that
corresponded exactly to the classified authenticator numbers of
20 US POWs who were lost in Laos." Alfond added, according to
the transcript: "This PAVE SPIKE intelligence is seamless, but
the committee has not discussed it or released what it knows
about PAVE SPIKE."
McCain attended that committee hearing specifically to confront
Alfond because of her criticism of the panel's work. He bellowed
and berated her for quite a while. His face turning anger-pink,
he accused her of "denigrating" his "patriotism." The bullying
had its effect—she began to cry.
After a pause Alfond recovered and tried to respond to his
scorching tirade, but McCain simply turned away and stormed out
of the room. The PAVE SPIKE file has never been declassified. We
still don't know anything about those twenty POWs.
7. As previously mentioned, in April 1993, in a Moscow archive,
a researcher from Harvard, Stephen Morris, unearthed and made
public the transcript of a briefing that General Tran Van Quang
gave to the Hanoi politburo four months before the signing of
the Paris peace accords in 1973.
In the transcript, General Quang told the Hanoi politburo that
1,205 US prisoners were being held. Quang said that many of the
prisoners would be held back from Washington after the accords
as bargaining chips for war reparations. General Quang's report
added: "This is a big number. Officially, until now, we
published a list of only 368 prisoners of war. The rest we have
not revealed. The government of the USA knows this well, but it
does not know the exact number...and can only make guesses based
on its losses. That is why we are keeping the number of
prisoners of war secret, in accordance with the politburo's
instructions." The report then went on to explain in clear and
specific language that a large number would be kept back to
The reaction to the document was immediate. After two decades of
denying it had kept any prisoners, Hanoi responded to the
revelation by calling the transcript a fabrication.
Similarly, Washington—which had over the same two decades
refused to recant Nixon's declaration that all the prisoners had
been returned—also shifted into denial mode. The Pentagon issued
a statement saying the document "is replete with errors,
omissions and propaganda that seriously damage its credibility,"
and that the numbers were "inconsistent with our own
Neither American nor Vietnamese officials offered any rationale
for who would plant a forged document in the Soviet archives and
why they would do so. Certainly neither Washington nor
Moscow—closely allied with Hanoi—would have any motive, since
the contents were embarrassing to all parties, and since both
the United States and Vietnam had consistently denied the
existence of unreturned prisoners. The Russian archivists simply
said the document was "authentic."
8. In his 2002 book, Inside Delta Force, Retired Command
Sgt. Major Eric Haney described how in 1981 his special forces
unit, after rigorous training for a POW rescue mission, had the
mission suddenly aborted, revived a year later and again
abruptly aborted. Haney writes that this abandonment of captured
soldiers ate at him for years and left him disillusioned about
his government's vows to leave no men behind.
"Years later, I spoke at length with a former highly placed
member of the North Vietnamese diplomatic corps, and this person
asked me point-blank: 'Why did the Americans never attempt to
recover their remaining POWs after the conclusion of the war?'"
Haney writes. He continued, saying that he came to believe
senior government officials had called off those missions in
1981 and 1982. (His account is on pages 314 to 321 of my
paperback copy of the book.)
9. There is also evidence that in the first months of Ronald
Reagan's presidency in 1981, the White House received a ransom
proposal for a number of POWs being held by Hanoi in Indochina.
The offer, which was passed to Washington from an official of a
third country, was apparently discussed at a meeting in the
Roosevelt Room attended by Reagan, Vice-President Bush, CIA
director William Casey and National Security Advisor Richard
Allen. Allen confirmed the offer in sworn testimony to the
Senate POW committee on June 23, 1992.
Allen was allowed to testify behind closed doors and no
information was released. But a San Diego Union-Tribune
reporter, Robert Caldwell, obtained the portion relating to the
ransom offer and reported on it. The ransom request was for $4
billion, Allen testified. He said he told Reagan that "it would
be worth the president's going along and let's have the
negotiation." When his testimony appeared in the Union
Tribune, Allen quickly wrote a letter to the panel, this
time not under oath, recanting the ransom story and claiming his
memory had played tricks on him. His new version was that some
POW activists had asked him about such an offer in a meeting
that took place in 1986, when he was no longer in government.
"It appears," he said in the letter, "that there never was a
1981 meeting about the return of POW/MIAs for $4 billion."
But the episode didn't end there. A Treasury agent on Secret
Service duty in the White House, John Syphrit, came forward to
say he had overheard part of the ransom conversation in the
Roosevelt Room in 1981, when the offer was discussed by Reagan,
Bush, Casey, Allen and other cabinet officials.
Syphrit, a veteran of the Vietnam War, told the committee he was
willing to testify but they would have to subpoena him. Treasury
opposed his appearance, arguing that voluntary testimony would
violate the trust between the Secret Service and those it
protects. It was clear that coming in on his own could cost
Syphrit his career. The committee voted 7 to 4 not to subpoena
In the committee's final report, dated January 13, 1993 (on page
284), the panel not only chastised Syphrit for his failure to
testify without a subpoena ("The committee regrets that the
Secret Service agent was unwilling..."), but noted that since
Allen had recanted his testimony about the Roosevelt Room
briefing, Syphrit's testimony would have been "at best,
uncorroborated by the testimony of any other witness." The
committee omitted any mention that it had made a decision not to
ask the other two surviving witnesses, Bush and Reagan, to give
testimony under oath. (Casey had died.)
10. In 1990, Colonel Millard Peck, a decorated infantry veteran
of Vietnam then working at the DIA as chief of the Asia Division
for Current Intelligence, asked for the job of chief of the
DIA's Special Office for Prisoners of War and Missing in Action.
His reason for seeking the transfer, which was not a promotion,
was that he had heard from officials throughout the Pentagon
that the POW/MIA office had been turned into a waste-disposal
unit for getting rid of unwanted evidence about live prisoners—a
"black hole," these officials called it.
Peck explained all this in his telling resignation letter of
February 12, 1991, eight months after he had taken the job. He
said he viewed it as "sort of a holy crusade" to restore the
integrity of the office but was defeated by the Pentagon
machine. The four-page, single-spaced letter was scathing,
describing the putative search for missing men as "a cover-up."
Millard A. Peck's
Feb. 12, 1991, letter of resignation
(click image to download)
Peck charged that, at its top echelons, the Pentagon had
embraced a "mind-set to debunk" all evidence of prisoners left
behind. "That national leaders continue to address the prisoner
of war and missing in action issue as the 'highest national
priority,' is a travesty," he wrote. "The entire charade does
not appear to be an honest effort, and may never have
been....Practically all analysis is directed to finding fault
with the source. Rarely has there been any effective, active
follow through on any of the sightings, nor is there a
responsive 'action arm' to routinely and aggressively pursue
"I became painfully aware," his letter continued, "that I was
not really in charge of my own office, but was merely a
figurehead or whipping boy for a larger and totally
Machiavellian group of players outside of DIA...I feel strongly
that this issue is being manipulated and controlled at a higher
level, not with the goal of resolving it, but more to obfuscate
the question of live prisoners and give the illusion of progress
through hyperactivity." He named no names but said these players
are "unscrupulous people in the Government or associated with
the Government" who "have maintained their distance and remained
hidden in the shadows, while using the [POW] Office as a 'toxic
waste dump' to bury the whole 'mess' out of sight." Peck added
that "military officers...who in some manner have 'rocked the
boat' [have] quickly come to grief."
Peck concluded: "From what I have witnessed, it appears that any
soldier left in Vietnam, even inadvertently, was, in fact,
abandoned years ago, and that the farce that is being played is
no more than political legerdemain done with 'smoke and mirrors'
to stall the issue until it dies a natural death."
The disillusioned Colonel not only resigned but asked to be
retired immediately from active military service. The press
never followed up.
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
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
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
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.
Jan. 7, 1993
(click image to download)
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.
(click image to download)
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."
(click image to download)
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).
(click image to download)
*Page 91: A lengthy footnote provides more confirmation of
the White House's knowledge of abandoned POWs. The footnote
(click image to download)
"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.
Jan. 8, 1973
(click image to download)
* 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."
(click image to download)
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."
(click image to download)
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
(click image to download)
*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
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
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
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
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