Panel in discord: Were POWs held after Viet War? Live-sighting evidence ignored, some are saying

November 19, 1992|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- Even as the United States moves towar normalizing relations with Vietnam, a special Senate committee on prisoner-of-war affairs is deeply divided on the question that prompted its creation: Were American POWs imprisoned in Vietnam and Laos long after the war in Southeast Asia ended?

With less than six weeks to go before the expiration of its 18-month mandate, the panel that produced many revelations and compelling insights into the POW mystery is now so split that it is in danger of being dragged into the same vortex of mistrust and bitterness that has swirled around the POW/MIA debate since the Vietnam War's end.

At least one member, Sen. Charles E. Grassley, R-Iowa, is so upset at his colleagues that he canceled plans to participate in the Vietnam trip and is now said by aides to be thinking about resigning from the 12-member panel. The panel's Republican vice chairman, and a growing number of investigators on the committee staff, are also beginning to complain bitterly of the way the probe is being handled.

The split -- which centers on the way the committee has investigated live-sighting reports, satellite imagery and other intelligence suggesting that POWs remained in Southeast Asia long after the war -- has been overshadowed in the past few weeks by Vietnam's recent decision to open its archives on missing servicemen to U.S. field experts.

Now in Hanoi to press the Vietnamese for further cooperation, Committee Chairman John Kerry, D-Mass., said yesterday that "we are finally on the road to getting answers" to resolve the fate of many of the 2,221 Americans officially still listed as missing.

After touring a secret defense complex in central Hanoi and examining a cache of flight suits and other U.S. military artifacts long hidden there, Mr. Kerry predicted that President Bush, before leaving office, will reward the Vietnamese for their cooperation by easing an economic embargo in force since since the fall of Saigon in 1975.

"Many options are available for the president," Mr. Kerry said, describing a letter from Mr. Bush that he delivered to Vietnamese President Le Duc Anh. "He [Mr. Bush] did not say specifically which he would exercise . . . but he did say he would act."

But back in Washington, some members of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs are starting to object to what they believe is an attempt to turn the committee investigation into a way of accelerating the establishment of diplomatic relations with Vietnam, a process the United States has long made dependent on resolution of the POW-MIA issue.

In particular, they are upset by what they see as an increasingly aggressive effort by Mr. Kerry and his allies to steer the committee's investigation away from what they believe is compelling evidence that POWs could have been held in Vietnam as recently as 1989.

Interviews with a number of committee staff members over the past several days suggested that, far from being resolved, internal differences that have plagued the panel from its inception have widened as the deadline for drafting a final report approaches. "There is a lot of mistrust and frustration on the staff," one committee investigator said. "Every time we try to pursue a lead about live prisoners, we get pulled back.

"Will we ever learn all the answers? Probably not," the investigator said. "But could we get answers to many of the questions? Probably yes, except that we don't seem to want them."

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