Draft by MIA panel finds Nixon culpable Effort to account for troops faulted

January 10, 1993|By Los Angeles Times

WASHINGTON -- A draft of a Senate report being release this week concludes that President Richard Nixon and his senior advisers bear some blame for the scores of Americans thought to have been held captive in Southeast Asia but never accounted for at the end of the Vietnam War.

The draft, a copy of which was obtained by the Los Angeles Times, also harshly criticized former Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger. A subsequent version of the draft toned down the criticisms of Mr. Nixon and Mr. Kissinger after vigorous protests by both men.

The Times also learned Friday that Mr. Nixon has quietly registered his opposition to efforts within the Bush administration to normalize relations with Vietnam. In response to questions from the committee on prisoners of war and troops missing in action, Mr. Nixon wrote a letter, not yet made public, detailing why he thought normalization would be a "tragic mistake."

Mr. Nixon's written statement provides the strongest evidence so far that he and officials of his former administration constitute a determined lobby against normalization of relations with Vietnam.

His views could carry considerable weight with the Bush administration, in which the top two foreign-policy officials, National Security Adviser Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger, worked on Vietnam policy in Mr. Nixon's White House.

The draft report's contention that the Nixon administration did not do all it could to account for missing U.S. servicemen is expected to be one of two controversial conclusions drawn by the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs as it winds up a yearlong investigation into the fates of the 2,226 Americans still listed as missing from the Vietnam War.

The committee also is expected to find, in the words of the draft, that there is "no compelling evidence that missing Americans are alive or that there are firm reasons for anticipating [their] return."

In a judgment certain to be denounced by family groups who think prisoners of war are still being held in Southeast Asia, the committee said all of the evidence obtained over the years, from live sighting reports to satellite imagery, was "inconclusive at best."

The long-awaited report is based on hundreds of interviews and millions of pages of newly declassified documents. It represents the most exhaustive effort yet to answer the question that has gnawed at the nation for almost two decades: Were prisoners left behind in Vietnam, and could any possibly still be alive today?

Mr. Kissinger, who as national security adviser negotiated the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, mounted what sources close to the committee characterized as an intensive, behind-the-scenes effort to moderate its criticism of his handling of the Paris Peace Accords negotiations with Vietnam as they pertained to prisoners of war.

Mr. Kissinger "has been talking to people on the committee practically every day," one source said. "He is making point-by-point rebuttals of the conclusions and driving staff crazy."

Although concern about POWs captured alive in Vietnam and Laos was shown in classified memorandums at the time, it was rarely reflected in public comments by Nixon administration officials.

The gap between the private and public assessments was evident from the contrast between a March 28, 1973, memorandum by Mr. Eagleburger, who was then assistant secretary of defense, and the public statements that Mr. Nixon made the following day.

The Eagleburger memorandum, which remained classified until late last year, was written to then-Secretary of Defense Elliot L. Richardson and said Pentagon intelligence experts thought that Laotians "may hold a number of unidentified U.S. POWs, although we cannot accurately judge how many." The U.S. Embassy in Laos, Mr. Eagleburger added, "agrees with this judgment."

The next day, however, President Nixon, in a White House address, declared to the nation that "all our POWs are on the way home," while a senior Department of Defense official said, "We have no indication at this moment that there are any Americans alive in Indochina."

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