Pentagon balks at paying compensation to Vietnamese commandos it wrote off Law provides $20 million for prisoners listed as dead

April 03, 1997|By BOSTON GLOBE

WASHINGTON SUN STAFF WRITER TOM BOWMAN CONTRIBUTED TO THIS ARTICLE. — WASHINGTON -- Thirty years after they were written off as dead, Vietnamese commandos who once worked for the U.S. Army are being abandoned again by a Pentagon that has refused to pay compensation approved by President Clinton, a lawyer for the commandos says.

Six months ago, Clinton signed a law providing $20 million in compensation to the commandos, who were hired by the CIA and Defense Department for secret missions in the early days of the Vietnam War.

But the Defense Department is balking at making payments. A Pentagon spokeswoman said Tuesday that the appropriation and authorization bills approved by Congress last year have different wording, raising a legal issue that can be resolved only by passing another law.

John Mattes, a Miami lawyer who represents the 350 aging commandos and survivors, called the situation "total stonewalling." He said the Defense Department is dragging its feet because the military refuses to accept responsibility for walking away from its POWs.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican and chairman of the Senate intelligence committee, has described the military's behavior as "criminal."

In a recent letter to the National Security Council, Mattes said the Defense Department "is attempting to sabotage efforts to provide justice for the lost Army commandos." Mattes said many of the commandos suffer from ill health, and three have died in the past two years.

Between 1959 and 1964, 450 South Vietnamese commandos -- recruited, trained and paid by the U.S. government for a secret mission known as Operation 34-Alpha -- were captured in North Vietnam and Laos. Some were executed. Others were imprisoned and tortured. The last commando held captive was released in 1988.

Mattes learned of the commandos while working on the staff of a special Senate committee on prisoners of war and soldiers missing in action. Now a lawyer in private practice, he began searching for them in 1993 and two years later filed suit against the government for their back pay.

The Defense Department initially refused to acknowledge the commando mission, but Mattes discovered 500,000 pages of classified documents at the National Archives. The documents included pay rosters indicating that the Army listed the commandos as killed in action when they actually were in prison.

The Army gave widows and survivors a minimal death payment of a few hundred dollars to close the cases. By declaring the prisoners dead, the Army no longer had to pay the families $2,000 a year while the commandos were in prison. It also kept the mission secret. The commandos acted as spies and saboteurs who infiltrated Communist territory.

The commandos' exploits were the subject of the 1995 book "Secret Army, Secret War, Washington's Tragic Spy Operation in North Vietnam," by Crofton author Sedgewick Tourison, a Vietnam-era intelligence specialist.

Tourison said yesterday that the Defense and Justice departments "are fighting the actual payment of money to the commandos" despite bipartisan agreement in Congress that "a wrong had been done." The Pentagon is concerned that once the money is paid, the next question will be who is responsible, he said.

Pub Date: 4/03/97

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