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Report: McCain Suppressed Info on Fellow Vietnam POWs Left Behind

StoryOctober 23, 2008
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Sydney Schanberg

Veteran journalist who has written extensively on foreign affairs. He has won several awards, including a Pulitzer Prize in 1976 for reporting on the rise of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. His latest article appeared in the October 6 issue of The Nation magazine. It’s about John McCain and the American prisoners of war left behind in Vietnam. It’s called Why Has John McCain Blocked Info on MIAs? . An expanded version is online at the Nation Institute website.

We speak to Pulitzer-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg about how the "war hero" candidate Sen. John McCain buried information about POWs left behind in Vietnam. Writing for The Nation magazine, Schanberg reveals that McCain "worked very hard to hide from the public stunning information about American prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn’t return home." [includes rush transcript]

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: John McCain’s time as a POW during the Vietnam War is back at the center of attention with the release of a 1967 interview of him while he was bedridden and imprisoned in Vietnam. The interview by reporter Francois Chalais originally aired on French television in 1968. The French national audiovisual archive posted the interview on its website Wednesday, and some of the footage was also picked up by the McCain campaign. The interview shows an emotional McCain describing how his aircraft was shot down while he was bombing Hanoi in 1967.

Well, McCain’s years as a prisoner of war and his return home as a war hero have been a central part of his political image. But there’s another part of the story that’s rarely been told, and that has to do with the POWs who were left behind in Vietnam and never released back to the United States.

AMY GOODMAN: An investigation by veteran journalist Sydney Schanberg reveals John McCain “worked very hard to hide from the public stunning information about American prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn’t return home." Schanberg’s report was published in the October 6th issue of The Nation magazine. It’s called “Why Has John McCain Blocked Info on MIAs?”

Award-winning journalist Sydney Schanberg joins us here in the firehouse studio. Welcome to Democracy Now! Well, tell us the whole story, as you understand it, Syd Schanberg.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, it’s a long and complicated story, but I’ll try to do it in brief. In 1973, we were at the — early ’73, we were at the negotiating table with the Hanoi government, and we weren’t doing very well. We bombed them in December of 1972 to try to get them to be more reasonable. That didn’t happen. They were going to stick it out and stick to their positions. And one of their positions was that they linked the prisoner issue very, very closely to the issue of reconstruction money, reparations, and they never let those two be separated.

So, when it came down to us pushing for a final version of this treaty, they refused to tell us, before we signed, how many prisoners they were returning. And we accepted that condition. It was said they would tell us after we signed. So, we signed, and they give us a list, which had 591 names on it. This astounded people in our intelligence community, because their list showed several hundred more.

And there was this back-and-forth that the American public never saw, because it took place at higher levels. Nixon wrote a letter to Pham Van Dong, the prime minister, in which he said, we have, in Laos alone, a list of 311 prisoners held alive, and you are sending back nine prisoners from Laos. Quote: "That is inconceivable." That’s what he wrote. And it was inconceivable. But when it came time to explain to the American people whether we were getting all of our prisoners back, Nixon went to the television set and gave a national speech on television saying all of our prisoners are on their way home. He knew that was a lie.

Now, I don’t know what was in Nixon’s head or Kissinger’s head. Maybe they thought they could get them back later. But our position was no ransom. And so, there never was any ransom, unlike the French, who, after their defeat at Dien Bien Phu, they had many, many soldiers held back, all of whom — well, I don’t know if it’s “all of whom,” but most of whom were ransomed, privately, secretly, by back channel sources and so forth, but that’s how they got out. And we refused, and there were several ransom offers, and they were never made public. In fact, Richard Allen testified under oath — he was the National Security Adviser in the Reagan administration, and he testified under oath, behind closed doors, again, not seen by the American public, that prisoners — that there was a ransom offer in early 1972 and that nothing was done about it. And on and on and on.

AMY GOODMAN: But you say that a meeting was held between Reagan, Vice President George H.W. Bush, CIA Director William Casey, Allen, as well, the National Security Adviser, to discuss this issue of the ransom to get some of these, you estimate what, over 1,200 American prisoners?

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Yeah. Well, the principal — the real reason why we know about that meeting is that a Secret Service officer, who was doing some wiring for some sensory equipment that he was setting up in the White House, overheard the conversation and was horrified by it, because they were obviously not going to do anything about this. And nobody knew at that time that there were — you know, most of America thought everybody had come home.

And, in fact, the thing that I should probably have mentioned first is that there was this story that the whole thing was a myth, a hoax, a right-wing hoax. And liberals chose to believe that. Or they were — you can say they were misled and accepted it. You know, we live in an area of mythology. We’ve been lied to regularly. We now see that we’ve been — we were lied to, even to a greater degree, about the Iraq war than anybody ever imagined or anybody thought that it was capable of the White House. And most people who respond, for example, to my story — I mean, a lot of people — with “This can’t be. This just can’t be. We would know about it by now. Or we would” — you know, the truth is that there is — I wouldn’t — I can’t write this, because I can’t prove it, but there are reports which have a strong level of belief from Laotians that they have talked to right now, men who are still there alive thirty-five years later.

JUAN GONZALEZ: But now, what about — because, obviously, after Nixon and Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter came in. What have the Democrats done on this issue at all? Or did they ignore it, as well?

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: The Democrats ignored it. It was not, first of all, high on their priorities. And secondly, to dig into this, Juan, they would have to disrupt the entire government establishment, before and after whatever presidency it was. In other words, every national security adviser, from Nixon on — this has gone across seven presidencies. Every president, every national security adviser, every secretary of state probably knows about this.

Now, two secretaries of defense testified at committee hearings, in the open, on television, under oath, that men were left behind. That was done in 1992. The press never touched it. That’s another piece of the story. The mainstream press ran away from this story. What was the reason? Well, they were being accused of having lost Vietnam. In other words, they wrote — the Republicans or the conservatives were saying, “You lost Vietnam,” like who lost China in years previous.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And John McCain’s role in all this?

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: John McCain’s role is harder to divine the reasons for. But John McCain — there has always been talk, and there’s evidence to suggest that there is truth in this, but it’s in his head, and only he and his psychiatrist, if he has one, know, that he — his reasons are that if the North — if the Vietnamese were to release all the information they have on him, the full text of his confessions, how he lived the details, because there have been stories, again, just rumors, that he was provided with a woman companion, and all kinds of things like that, which are — can’t be considered as fact, because they’ve never been confirmed, and very, very difficult, if not impossible, to confirm.

And there have even been rumors that he had an agreement, an understanding with the Vietnamese, that he would do everything to get their nation recognized in the international network and get them — our diplomatic relations, ours, the United States, relations restored, which he did, if they would never release his information. None of his military records have ever been released, and there’s been no pressure to do so. And that’s just his military records, where he was a sort of a screw-up pilot, crashing three planes while not on combat duty, but just in training. And everybody knows that, everybody who ever worked with him. And they don’t consider that dishonorable, but they also say that if he hadn’t been the son of the Rear Admiral, who was Commander-in-Chief, Pacific, his — you know, his father, John Sidney McCain II — that he would have been bounced.

AMY GOODMAN: Syd Schanberg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, won the Pulitzer for his coverage of Cambodia. The film Killing Field is based on his work there. Tell us about the Senate POW committee that John McCain served on and the sister of a missing airman who came forward, Dolores Alfond, her testimony and what happened.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Well, the committee was formed because there was a resurgence of interest by POW families, and they were pressing very hard, “We want to know the truth.” They had been worked over by the government. They hadn’t been shown the files that the government had on their missing men, and they had been taken on a merry-go-round and lied to and all that sort of thing, because now, you see, the government — once you tell a lie that big and you start to cover it up, as the years pass, you’ve really got to continue to cover it up, because all of those people that I mentioned — you know, national security advisers, presidents — would lose their reputations if one could look at them and say, “You knew about this, and you did nothing.” And that is exactly what happened.

But, in any case, the committee — when the committee was formed, I must acknowledge that I had this naive opinion that they were really going to do something and dig in and get to the bottom of this story. And I had been poking at this story for a long time, but not really immersing myself in it. And so, for a few months I really thought that’s what they were doing. They were going for files and so forth. But then it became quite clear that they really weren’t looking for anything and that they were cooperating with the intelligence community and the Defense Department to accept the non-provision of files. Every time they asked for something, they were told, “Oh, we’ll give you everything,” and they gave them nothing. In fact, the CIA Directorate of Operations has never released anything significant. If you got into their files — and the DIA has a place where they keep their special stuff, and that’s called Hotel California, for some reason I don’t know. It’s a vault, and nobody has ever — nobody on this committee ever got near it. And the staff began to rebel.

McCain came on the committee. First, he asked to be chairman, and that wasn’t — that didn’t happen. Then he insisted upon being on the committee, and apparently in order to control what information was released. Kerry had this great desire to normalize relations with Hanoi. And so, both of them were really on — it was the same eventual goal, but from a different track. McCain had something to hide, and Kerry had this other goal.

And I don’t know what he was thinking, perhaps that since most of these men, by 1992, which was the basic year of this committee, may be dead. That’s what intelligence tells us; doesn’t say they’re all dead, but they became useless after a while. Since we didn’t give ransoms, we didn’t accept the ransom idea, those men became useless as leverage for bargaining. That is why the Vietnamese held them. That’s why they held the French soldiers. And it’s been a tradition. You know, there were Korean soldiers — our soldiers in Korea held back, and so forth. So that was what happened to the committee. Kerry and McCain pushed it along, revealing nothing and ending up with an executive summary, the report — the executive summary of the reports, that only a small number could have been left behind.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, there have been other independent efforts by some Americans to try to continue to ferret out this story. Didn’t Ross Perot at one point try to bankroll some effort to try to find the missing POWs?

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Ross Perot had a lot of information about men held in Laos. That’s — Laos is considered really the center of this, because the Vietnamese probably have not got anybody alive on their territory, so that they can legitimately say there’s nobody in Vietnam, there’s no prisoners being held in Vietnam. But Laos is a place where you can’t move around through that entire country. In fact, our military units that search for bones, crash sites and so forth of soldiers who were shot down, airmen, are not allowed to go to certain areas of Laos. And the American public isn’t told that either. And those areas are where those prisoners were held. Anyway, the end result was that the indifferent press, the lack of a constituency for this issue — the only constituency for this issue are some veterans and the families of the POWs, so there’s no political pressure on anybody.

AMY GOODMAN: Syd Schanberg, in this hearing, you have this sister of the missing airman, Captain Victor Apodaca.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Right, Dolores Alfond.

AMY GOODMAN: She asks about why information hasn’t been released on the classified program known as PAVE SPIKE, the electronic sensors designed to pick up enemy troops movements.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Right, yes. You asked about that, and I digressed.

AMY GOODMAN: And what — how McCain responded to her when she demanded information. He was the most powerful member of this committee, being himself —-

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: A POW. Well, PAVE SPIKE was an instrument that we would drop from planes that would monitor motion, which meant soldiers up and down the Ho Chi Minh Trail bringing supplies to the war from North Vietnam. But it also had another function. Soldiers, airmen were trained in how to use this thing, and then they could punch in their coded locator number, which was a classified thing. And at one point, twenty names, twenty locator numbers, all separate, were punched into these spikes that fell in the ground.

And she got up, and she said, “What about this? Who were these men? What happened to them?” And she was told that it was classified and so forth. But he responded by saying, “How dare you challenge my patriotism?” He twists lot of things during the life of this committee into “How dare you challenge my patriotism?” And he’s, of course, done that throughout his campaign for the presidency. And he began to scream. His face grew pink and then darker pink. He was pounding on the desk. She began to cry. I mean, she hesitated. She reached into her purse, took out a handkerchief and began to dab her eyes, finally composed herself. She said, “I’m not challenging your patriotism. I’m asking you to keep this committee alive and keep digging for information and give us the information.” And he just stood up at that point, and he was almost about to explode, spun around and raced out of the committee room. And -—

AMY GOODMAN: And they never declassified the information.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: No, it’s never been declassified. It’s one of the first things I would ask for if I thought there was, you know — it’s all — it’s been asked for, it’s been denied. If you could have — if I could have my druthers, that’s one of the first things I would want to look at.

AMY GOODMAN: Finally, you say McCain was also instrumental in amending the Missing Service Personnel Act, which was strengthened in ’95 by POW advocates to include criminal penalties against any government official who knowingly and willfully withholds from the file of a missing person any information relating to their disappearance or status of a missing person.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Yes. He managed to dilute all the legislation that had said every public official in the United States federal government has to reveal to the public and to the family all information about POWs, who may be — who are missing and unaccounted for and may be alive, to the families and to the public. And he took out all of the punishment information from those laws. There was no — you could do it and get away with it, in other words, and the cover-up could continue. And so, he explained that by saying, uncompellingly, that he did it because he said you could never get anybody to work in the POW — in the Defense Department’s POW office if you had these penalties, if you made it a felony with a big fine. So, he was saying that he wanted to allow this cover-up to continue. I mean, that’s all it did.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Syd Schanberg’s piece appears in The Nation magazine. He is the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who’s written extensively on Vietnam, won the prize for his coverage of Cambodia.

SYDNEY SCHANBERG: Can I add one thing? The Nation

printed an abbreviated version. The full version of the piece is found on the Nation Institute website, which is

AMY GOODMAN: And we’ll link to that at This is Democracy Now!, Tomorrow, we will bring you the victims of Agent Orange and why they’ve come to the United States, suing the US government and the companies that made Agent Orange.

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