U.S. reportedly rejected spies-for-POWs swap Documents show East German offer

December 27, 1992|By Mark Sauter | Mark Sauter,McClatchy News Service

TACOMA, Wash. -- The United States turned down an Eas German offer to trade wounded U.S. POWs for Soviet spies, according to State Department records.

Lee Quang Khai, a Vietnamese Foreign Ministry defector, corroborated the report, saying U.S. prisoners of war had been sent from Vietnam to hospitals in East Germany.

The fate of the wounded POWs remains unclear.

The proposed POW swap is detailed in 1967 State Department telegrams from Washington to Bonn, Berlin and other locations. Some of the documents were released this month, but records detailing the final outcome of the offer have not been made public until now.

The records contradict repeated Vietnamese and Pentagon denials that any U.S. prisoners were shipped from Indochina to Eastern Europe.

Until recent months, the Pentagon had told the public and Congress that there was "no evidence" that any Americans had been sent from Vietnam to East bloc countries. More recently, the Pentagon line shifted to denials that there was any firm evidence of such shipments.

Mr. Lee, the Vietnamese defector, said some severely wounded American captives were sent abroad.

"Some critical cases we could not treat in Vietnam, so those men were sent to Eastern bloc countries, and then they would be returned to Vietnam," said Mr. Lee, an 11-year veteran of Vietnam's Foreign Ministry now seeking political asylum in the United States.

Mr. Lee said he learned of the medical program from classified records and from a senior foreign ministry official.

But Hong Nguyen Thi, spokeswoman for the Vietnamese delegation to the United Nations, repeated Vietnamese denials that any U.S. POWs were sent to East bloc countries or kept in Vietnam after the war.

The State Department, the Pentagon and the German Embassy have not responded to questions on the alleged POW swap.

According to the diplomatic records, the bargain was brokered by Wolfgang Vogel, a East German lawyer who arranged the return of many prisoners from communist control during the Cold War.

Mr. Vogel appeared to confirm the proposed swap when contacted by German television producers. He declined to discuss details of the deal, saying they would appear in his forthcoming book, said Karin Assmann, a reporter for the "Spiegel T.V." show.

But Mr. Vogel did not dispute the information, saying, "You're on the right track. Keep going," Ms. Assmann said.

Mr. Vogel's West German partner, a man identified only as Stange, proposed the swap to U.S. officials in January 1967, according to the records. The swap had been suggested to Mr. Vogel by Soviet officials and vouched for by the East German state prosecutor's office, the records said.

According to the offer, five or six U.S. aviators were being held in a hospital outside East Berlin, which one record indicated might have been in Bestensee, southeast of Berlin.

In return for U.S. POWs, the communists demanded the "Krogers," apparently Helen and Peter Kroger, well-known Soviet spies then imprisoned in Britain.

The United States, not convinced that U.S. POWs were really in East Germany, unsuccessfully asked for more information on the prisoners. Still, the U.S. side negotiated for months with Mr. Vogel and his partner, and even approached Britain about its willingness to give up the Krogers, the records show.

In March 1967, the State Department sent orders to the U.S. diplomats in Berlin: "Mission should inform Stange and Vogel that Krogers not available for exchange."

U.S. diplomats were ordered to appeal to the communists on the basis of "humanity" and the Geneva Convention, but Mr. Vogel responded that the deal was good only for the Krogers.

Talks continued, but by June 1967, Mr. Vogel hinted that the offer might soon be withdrawn.

The State Department apparently then gave up on the deal. There is no record that the United States ever concluded a spies-for-POWs deal.

British officials reportedly swapped the Krogers in 1969 for one of their own -- Gerald Brooke, an alleged English spy then in Soviet custody.

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