POWS were abandoned in Southeast Asia, Senate report says

January 05, 1993|By Newsday

WASHINGTON -- A special Senate committee report concludes that American prisoners of war probably were left behind in Southeast Asia when the United States pulled out of the Vietnam War in 1973.

The carefully worded report, prepared by the staff of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs after more than a year's investigation, says the panel found no hard evidence that specific prisoners were "consciously left behind," according to portions of a draft document.

Nevertheless, it asserts that the committee's review of data compiled by consecutive administrations over the past two decades found information supporting the likelihood of the "survival at least for some [POWs], at least for a while," after the repatriation on April 12, 1973, of 591 American prisoners. Vietnam has insisted it returned all POWs.

The draft report concludes: "There remains the troubling question of whether the Americans who were expected to return but did not were, as a group, shunted aside and discounted by the government and population alike. The answer to that question is essentially yes. It is in this sense that a form of abandonment did take place."

By saying that Americans likely were left behind, the panel contradicts several earlier congressional studies that concluded that all Americans were returned.

The committee bases its conclusions on these indicators:

* Intelligence reports of Americans known to be in captivity before the repatriation but not among the 591 returnees.

* Claims until recently by officials of the Pathet Lao, the Hanoi-linked rulers of Laos, that they were holding American prisoners.

* A Pentagon estimate prior to repatriation that 40 Americans were held in Laos. Twelve were returned.

* The debriefing of returnees, who identified more than 70 fellow prisoners who were not repatriated.

Nevertheless, the document concludes that there is only a slight chance that Americans are still being held in Southeast Asia.

The report lays much of the blame for the abandonment of POWs on former President Nixon, who signed the treaty that ended U.S. involvement in the war and led to the return of the 591 American prisoners, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is on the panel.

The document notes that Mr. Nixon was told by his national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, that U.S. intelligence believed that the list of American POWs provided by Laos shortly before the prisoner exchange was incomplete, but ordered the POW swap to go ahead anyway.

It says that Mr. Nixon told Mr. Kissinger that Laos' "failure to account for the additional prisoners [after the prisoner exchange] would lead to a resumption of bombing." But Mr. Kissinger told the panel that Mr. Nixon "was later unwilling to carry through on this threat."

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