WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton moves toward recognition of Vietnam, administration officials and their allies are insisting that the POW-MIA issue should no longer be a barrier to normal relations between the two former enemies.
They say Vietnam's cooperation in joint field investigations has been excellent -- and would go even more smoothly if the two nations had full diplomatic relations.
They also say the most promising unresolved cases now number fewer than 100, and they point to Hanoi's recent release of documents pertaining to MIA cases.
But interviews with former leaders of U.S. military search teams, testimony from Pentagon officials and internal Defense Department reports raise doubts about these assertions, which are central to the imminent change in U.S. policy.
So far, this information has been either dismissed or ignored. It has also been overwhelmed by the feeling among the most visible Vietnam heroes that it is time to move on. Except among veterans' groups and families of MIAs, this view seems to have gained acceptance. In February, Mr. Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam without encountering public protest, and with important help from a Senate resolution in favor of the move.
Leading the charge was the man whose opinion probably carries the most weight in the Senate on the issue, Republican John McCain of Arizona, a former Navy pilot who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Mr. McCain is expected to be at the president's side, figuratively if not literally, when Mr. Clinton announces his recognition of Vietnam, a step administration officials say is imminent.
"I think it's very important for us to recognize that the war is over," Mr. McCain said in May after meeting with Mr. Clinton. "What I think we need to do is look forward as a nation to the healing process."
Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another decorated Vietnam vet, stood beside Mr. McCain that day and praised Vietnamese efforts at solving MIA cases.
"The material that's been turned over most recently adds to what is already the single most extensive and exhaustive accounting for missing in the history of all human warfare," he said.
Mr. Clinton, while unveiling a POW/MIA stamp on Memorial Day, also made a point of mentioning Vietnam's release of documents. But it is here, critics say, that Mr. Clinton -- as well as Mr. Kerry and Mr. McCain -- are on weaker ground.
The documents in question were released May 15 to a presidential delegation and consisted of 187 pages on seven MIA cases. A second release to a congressional delegation consisted of 100 more pages.
As recently as yesterday, administration officials touted these documents as proof of heightened Vietnamese cooperation. But internal assessments by the Pentagon POW/MIA office show they will be of little value in solving cases. Most of the documents report on previously unsuccessful searches by Vietnam.
The Pentagon assessment team wrote that, although it might prove possible to a develop a new lead or two from the material, "the information contained in the . . . documents will not result in the immediate resolution of any cases."
A week and a half ago, Rep. Robert K. Dornan, a conservative California Republican, held hearings on the POW/MIA issue and assembled administration policy-makers, including James W. Wold, who heads the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office.
They were asked whether they believed the Vietnamese could solve "hundreds" of cases of missing Americans. The witnesses indicated they didn't believe so or didn't know.
The backdrop for this question was congressional testimony in 1979 by a masked former Vietnamese undertaker -- now in the federal witness protection program -- who said that he had processed the remains of more than 200 Americans and that he saw a warehouse with perhaps 200 more corpses.
In the ensuing years, 162 of the remains released by Vietnam showed evidence of having been stored, convincing Pentagon investigators and MIA families that such a warehouse existed, even though the Vietnamese deny it.
Citing this information, Mr. Dornan and Rep. James M. Talent, a Missouri Republican, sought the testimony of senior analysts with the Pentagon's POW/MIA Office.
One of those analysts, Gary Sydow, was asked whether any evidence received by the United States had changed the government's long-held position that Vietnam could clear up hundreds of cases -- and locate and return many remains -- if it so chose. Mr. Sydow replied that evidence provided by the "mortician" still was at the heart of the continued U.S. insistence for more answers -- and that the possibility Vietnam continues to withhold information cannot be ruled out.
"He was under oath -- he had to be honest," said Richard Childress, a former member of the White House National Security Council. "In other words, he completely contradicted what the policy guys had said."