Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Lynn O’Shea, Director of Research for the National Alliance of Families for the Return of America’s Missing Servicemen.
FP: Lynn O’Shea, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Tell us what your Alliance is currently working on.
O’Shea: Currently, we are working toward the passage of House Resolution 111, calling for the formation of a Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in the House of Representatives. It is our hope that the House Committee will pick up where the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs ended in 1993. When the Senate Committee published its final report, it contained several recommendations. One of those recommendations was that their work be ongoing. That has not happened. Since the Senate Committee ended, much new information has surfaced that requires in depth and objective review. Additionally, there is information within the records of the Senate Committee that did not make it into the final report. Some of this information directly impacts specific POW/MIA cases and how they should be investigated.
FP: The Senate Committee concluded in 1993 that “There is evidence, moreover, that indicates the possibility of survival, at least for a small number, after Operation Homecoming…” (Operation Homecoming, was the 1973 return of POWs upon the signing of the Paris Peace Accords.)
What exactly did this mean?
O’Shea: It meant in all probability that American servicemen were left behind at the end of the war in Southeast Asia. When Former Secretary of Defense and CIA Director James Schlesinger appeared before the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, he was asked directly if the United States left men behind in Southeast Asia. Schlesinger responded: “As of now, I can come to no other conclusion.”
What no one knew at the time was that when the Committee published its final report,
committee investigators had put together a list based on various sources of information, including admissions by Vietnamese officials, that some servicemen were in fact captured but not acknowledged by either the North Vietnamese or the Viet Cong.
FP: What else has been discovered?
O’Shea: In 2006, we located two memos written by an investigator for the Senate Committee. The first dated July 22, 1992, stated; “My review of JCRC (Joint Casualty Resolution Center) casualty files has surfaced several messages which list a total of nine American servicemen Vietnam has acknowledged were captured alive, all of whom are listed by DOD as having been declared dead while missing. None are officially listed as ever having been a POW. This information has come from Vietnamese officials a piece at a time over the past two years.”
The memo went on to say: ”this is the first admission from Vietnam that these nine were captured alive.” Of the nine servicemen named in this memo, only two have been accounted for.
The second memo dated August 1, 1992 expands on the earlier memo and increases the number of POWs from 9 to 19. That memo begins; “My review of POW/MIA case files disclosed DIA/JTFFA message traffic referring to individuals DOD now has information survived into captivity.” While these admissions have come from the Vietnamese government, our government continues to search for these men at their loss locations. Clearly, they will not be found at their loss locations unless the Vietnamese allow them to be found.
For years, we have speculated about the Senate Committee’s conclusion as to the “possibility of survival, for at least a small number after Operation Homecoming. We have asked: What is a small number? In August of 2008, we received our answer. That answer came in the form of another memo. This one was written based on a consensus of the investigators of the Senate Committee. This fifteen page memo began: “In the fall of 1991 the Senate Select Committee identified one of its priority tasks as defining the universe of Americans who could have survived in captivity in Southeast beyond the end of Operation Homecoming in April 1973. This led to a recovery of major historical documents which confirm what the administration knew in 1973 and what it knows today.”
The investigators concluded: “Today, Defense Department files contain evidence that at least 59 Americans were — or may have been — taken prisoner and their precise fate is still unclear. This includes the 20-30 not officially acknowledged by Vietnam in 1973. This represents the minimum number of possible live POWs today…. U.S. field teams in Vietnam since 1989 have uncovered evidence that more Americans were in fact taken captive than officially recorded.”
The memo also acknowledged that the figure of 59 “represents the minimum number of possible live POWs today.”
Not only did the committee investigators determine a possible minimum number of 59 POWs as possibly surviving after Operation Homecoming, they named them. This stunning information along the names of potential POWs left behind at the end of the war in Southeast Asia was never made public as part of the Committee final report. Even more unbelievable is the fact that none of the families whose loved ones were named on this list of possible survivors was ever informed of the information.
In addition to this formal memo, there are the working notes of various committee investigators. They provide great insight, as to the evidence available on individuals captured but not acknowledged by the North Vietnamese or Viet Cong.
FP: What explains the government’s lack of movement on this? Is there a cover-up for some reason? What interests are being threatened?
O’Shea: The families of our unaccounted for POWs and MIAs have asked this question for years. Prior to 1993, it was the job of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) to investigate reports of POWs in Southeast Asia. If you look at DIA actions and reactions from 1973 until approximately the 1982–83 time frame, you will find live sighting reports aggressively investigated. This is especially true during the period 1979–1981 under the leadership of General Eugene Tighe.
When reviewing documents of the day, one can see a subtle shifting in attitude within the DIA moving into 1982 – 83. Live sighting reports once viewed with an open mind were now viewed with the goal of disproving the report. General Tighe described this as the “mindset to debunk.” As the years progressed, that “mindset” deepened.
This shift in policy did not go unnoticed by the families of our POWs and MIAs. They were quick to make their displeasure with the DIA known. By 1985, the DIA was under the leadership of Commodore Thomas Brooks. Brooks spent only four months at the DIA and he was not happy with what he found. In a scathing memo, he wrote “I was not at all pleased with the situation I found when I took over responsibility for the POW/MIA issue. The deeper I looked the less professional the operation appeared.”
He went on to say “With regard to the allegation of “a mindset to debunk”, I must conclude that there is an element of truth to this as well, although probably not as much as has been publicly stated.”
Brooks ended his memo with this comment. “I am afraid we are in for some troubled times. We have not done our job as well as we should have in days passed and we will not withstand scrutiny very well.”
By 1991, Col. Millard Peck, head of the POW/MIA section at the DIA wrote, in his letter of resignation “The mindset to “debunk” is alive and well. It is held at all levels, and continues to pervade the POW-MIA Office, which is not necessarily the fault of the DIA. Practically all analysis is directed to finding fault with the source. Rarely has there been any effective, active follow through on any of the sightings, nor is there a responsive “action arm” to routinely and aggressively pursue leads. The latter was a moot point, anyway, since the Office was continuously buried in an avalanche of “ad hoc” tasking from every quarter, all of which required an immediate response.
It was impossible to plan ahead or prioritize course of action. Any real effort to pursue live sighting reports or exercise initiative was diminished by the plethora of “busy work” projects, directed by high authority outside of the DIA. A number of these grandiose endeavors bordered on the ridiculous, and – quite significantly – there was never an audit trail. None of these taskings was ever requested formally. There was, and still is, refusal by any of the players to follow normal intelligence channels in dealing with the POW-MIA Office.”
Is there a cover-up? Many years ago, during a conversation with a military casualty officer handling POW/MIA matters, the subject of a cover-up came up. This was his response. “There’s no cover-up, just a lot of incompetence.” Many individuals both in the military and political arena have staked their careers and reputation on the erroneous belief that no POW was left in Southeast Asia
FP: Why would a communist regime like North Vietnam keep our POWs? What have been some reports of what happened to them?
O’Shea: As far back as 1969, both the Central Intelligence Agency and the Rand Corp. a private think tank, concluded that the North Vietnamese would not return all the POWs in their custody at wars end. It was believed the North Vietnamese would hold these men as bargaining chips to insure the U.S. abided by the provisions of any peace agreement negotiated.
Clearly, the U.S. government expected the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong to hold back POWs, and that is exactly what they did.
What happened to the unreturned POWs? This is one of the great unanswered questions. Some reports have POWs in varying numbers in Vietnamese prisons. Other reports have some dispersed throughout Southeast Asia, mostly in Laos, living in villages with limited freedoms but not free to leave. Sadly, there are also reports that having outlived their usefulness, the POWs were executed.
FP: What have some defectors from enemy camps told us?
O’Shea: Live sighting reports vary. Some are first hand and highly detailed. One very significant and telling report comes from a Lt. in the North Vietnamese Army. He defected to the South in April of 1973. He told of seeing six American POWs and speaking with one of them on four occasions between August of 1972 and February of 1973. He described his encounters with this POW providing his first name, state of birth, military rank and background and marital status. The source described this POW down to a 1 ½” inch scar behind his left ear. U.S. officials correlated this report to Army Captain John T. McDonnell, who had a 1 ½” scar behind his left ear. This POW was alive after the signing of the Paris Peace Accords. He never came home.
FP: What can be done?
O’Shea: What can be done? That is a difficult question to answer. We no longer have any leverage with the Vietnamese government. Having lifted the trade embargo and granting diplomatic relations with Vietnam, we no longer have anything to negotiate with. We gave away the store and got nothing of true value in return.
Our only options are to work for the total declassification of all POW/MIA documents. In spite of two Presidential Executive Orders to declassify POW/MIA related material, much remains classified. We also believe the passage of House Resolution 111 calling for the formation of a POW/MIA Select Committee in the House of Representatives will aid in our efforts to bring public awareness to the POW/MIA issue. Additionally, it will allow an examination of information uncovered since the Senate Committee ended in January 1993. There is also the matter of information the Senate committee either did not address or were unable to fully address.
FP: Lynn O’Shea, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.