White House officials say it's time to move forward and if the United States insists on remains the Vietnamese say they don't have -- and perhaps really do not have -- U.S.-Vietnam relations will be stalled at a time when the rest of the world has moved to recognize Vietnam.
Others fear that the Clinton administration's willingness to look past this issue may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, Hanoi won't release the remains now because it doesn't have to -- and to do so would risk embarrassment.
"When I was working on this issue, we knew, in fact, that they had fully stored remains, we knew they had documents to show us where other sites were, and we knew they could solve hundreds of cases," Mr. Childress said. "But the Clinton administration -- and the last part of the Bush administration -- has had this attitude of 'Let's just get this issue behind us.' "
Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, has scheduled hearings on the issue for Wednesday. "The administration is rewarding a former adversary despite their reneging on a promise to cooperate," he said yesterday.
Another witness at the Dornan hearings gave testimony that some of his fellow members on the subcommittee found equally disturbing. It came from Michael D. Janich, a former Army linguist who led field investigations until he resigned last year.
He told Congress that joint teams investigating MIA cases in Vietnam and Laos were pressured by their U.S. superiors to rush their work in order to move stalled cases from "active" to "inactive" status. In the process, he said, teams sometimes conducted shoddy, cursory investigations. Mr. Janich provided examples:
One of them, identified as Case 1648, involved two American soldiers who were on combat patrol in Thua Thien-Hue province when they were shot and presumed killed.
Previously, he said, the team would have scoured the grounds on foot and questioned villagers, hoping somebody had seen a recovered dog tag or set of bones, personal artifacts -- or perhaps a wounded GI who was taken prisoner.
Instead, according to the report, the team "conducted an aerial reconnaissance flight over the last known location of Case 1648." The flight was conducted at 200 feet in a mountainous area of dense undergrowth, the report stated. Yet this case was moved off the active file.
"This is hardly what I would consider a thorough and responsible investigative effort or a means of achieving the fullest possible accounting," Mr. Janich said.
The Pentagon POW/MIA office, responding in writing to questions, said yesterday: "Cases are re-investigated as many times as is needed, often as many as 6 or 7 times."
Mr. Janich also questioned the most basic premise of current U.S. policy toward Vietnam -- that Vietnam is providing "excellent" cooperation. He provided several examples of obstructionist behavior, including cases in which the Vietnamese team leaders yelled at the Americans, brandished weapons at them, refused to show them places they wanted to see or silenced would-be witnesses.
"I experienced and reported in detail to my superiors regular occurrences of witness coaching, prompting and intimidation by my Vietnamese counterparts," Mr. Janich said. "I also experienced and reported the intentional withholding of information and documents by Vietnamese officials and witnesses and levels of cooperation so low that they would more properly be considered obstructions."
Asked about this, Beverly Baker, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said: "We are getting cooperation from the government. Some people feel that cooperation isn't enough, but since 1992, we've had 66 remains returned."
The number of remains actually certified as American and identified at the military lab in Hawaii is lower than that, however, and until now cases have not been counted as resolved until that identification process is over. To MIA family groups, this kind of exaggeration shows the administration's inclination to put a better face on things than might be warranted.
"The number, if you include Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, is 41, not 66," said Ann Griffiths Mills, executive director of the National League of POW/MIA Families. "And there have been only eight since the lifting of the embargo, an act that was supposed to guarantee all this great cooperation."
"Look, if they are intent on granting recognition for other reasons, then they ought to just do it," she added. "But don't lie about it."
Privately, White House officials say that they just don't know if the warehouse described in 1979 ever existed, and that even if it does, the Vietnamese aren't going to admit to it now, after denying its existence all these years.
They also argue that logic suggests that if such a cache of American bodies were still around in 1991, that would have been the time to release it, when President George Bush seemed close to recognizing Vietnam.