Report of the
Senate Select Committee
GOVERNMENT POLICIES AND ACTIONS
Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan
As part of its effort to conduct the most thorough investigation
possible, the Select Committee asked former Presidents Richard
Nixon, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan to grant the
Committee access to POW/MIA-related materials in their Presidential
libraries and to submit to formal depositions regarding the
handling of POW/MIA-related issues during their administrations.
The Committee recognized that the doctrine of Executive Privilege
applied to former administrations, but hoped that the former
Presidents, realizing the volatility of the issue, would agree to
waive the privilege. Because of unique concerns about Executive
Privilege and the Constitutional separation of powers, the
Committee did not make the same requests of President Bush.
All four former Presidents granted the Select Committee access to
relevant materials in their Presidential libraries, but none
provided a sworn deposition. The Committee chose not to attempt to
challenge any claims of Executive Privilege and not to attempt to
compel the former Presidents' testimony. The Committee attempted to
negotiate less formal arrangements for obtaining the former
Presidents' views on points important to the investigation.
These negotiations resulted in several different arrangements.
President Ford agreed to meet informally with Chairman Kerry and
Vice Chairman Smith. Presidents Nixon and Carter declined to meet
in person with members or staff of the Committee, but agreed to
provide signed, written answers to written questions. Only
President Reagan declined to answer the Select Committee's
questions in any form or setting.
The questions posed to Presidents Nixon and Carter, along with the
answers provided, are reproduced in full in the appendix. The
informal meeting between Senators Kerry and Smith and President
Ford will be scheduled as soon as all parties can meet.
From its inception, the Committee recognized that a successful
investigation of the POW/MIA issue could not stop at searching for
-- or even obtaining -- answers: to ensure that the American people
could have faith that the investigation was comprehensive, it would
be necessary to give the American people the documents and other
information they need to reach their own conclusions.
At the same time, the Committee had to identify and obtain all
relevant POW/MIA information, to burrow through the mountain of
paper toward answers, to put those with information on record and
pursue the leads they suggested before stories were squared among
witnesses or information disappeared. The Committee's first
priority was to examine any evidence of live Americans; its second
was to lay out for all Americans the evidence to let them judge its
merits for themselves.
In the past, the classification of most POW/MIA documents had
incurred public distrust and hampered the ability of Congress to
exercise its oversight responsibilities and the public's ability to
understand the actions behind the words "highest national
priority." This stalemate has lasted nearly 30 years in the case of
Vietnam War POW/MIA information, and longer for Korean War and
World War II documents which remain a secret even from the POW/MIA
To ensure that it could meet its two-pronged goals, the Committee
first sought to reduce the amount of information withheld on
national security grounds and then to find ways to expeditiously
declassify and release to the public as much of that information as
To get all essential materials declassified, the Committee agreed
that some secrets must be kept: the names of intelligence sources
who may be needed for information in the future; the methods the
U.S. employs to gather intelligence; and materials generated as
policy makers debate options. No other country in the world
discloses these secrets -- or as much as the U.S. is disclosing by
declassifying the vast majority of its POW/MIA documents.
The Committee's commitment to full public disclosure was referred
to frequently in many of the Committee's hearings, including in
There is no disagreement between Senator Smith and me
whatsoever as to the direction of this committee or what
we will do with respect to information. Senator Smith
and I have announced since the inception of this
committee that we will seek full declassification of all
material relevant to this issue and that it will take a
major showing of national security concern in order to
prevent us from seeking that declassification of material
now 20 or more years old. We have been in touch with
various parties and we have gotten much of that. And we
appreciate the cooperation. I might add that the Defense
Department, the State Department, and the National
Security Council have provided to this committee
documents that have never before been viewed with respect
to this issue.
Both Senator Smith and I believe that we could still do
better. Both of us believe that there are procedures in
place that could be simplified, and both of us believe
that the agencies of our Government could frankly be more
forthcoming by dumping it on our doorstep rather than
waiting for us to have to request it and go through a tug
In all, the Committee sent nearly 500 individual requests for
information and obtained and reviewed millions of pages of
documents from scores of U.S. agencies, offices, and other sources.
These unprecedented steps were taken to assure that all that can be
done to get the American public answers is being done, and that as
much information as possible about the POW/MIA issue is available
to POW/MIA families and others.
The Committee believes that its legacy will be that it removed the
shroud of secrecy which for too long has hidden information about
POW/MIAs from public scrutiny. The Committee's Members believe that
this legacy should become an enduring one, and that secrecy never
again becomes the watchword of U.S. accounting for POW/MIAs.
Existing Law : Executive Order 12536
When the Committee started its work, there was little evidence that
DoD, the armed services, or any Government agency or department was
systematically reviewing classified POW/MIA related information
with a view towards determining whether that information should be
given to families. This apparent government-wide failure to even
consider declassifying POW/MIA information was inconsistent with
the requirements of Executive Order 12536, in effect since April
This Order prescribes a uniform system for classifying,
declassifying and safeguarding national security
information. It recognizes that it is essential that the
public be informed concerning the activities of its
government, but that the interests of the United States
and its citizens require that certain information
concerning the national defense and foreign relations be
protected against unauthorized disclosure. Information
may not be classified under this Order unless its
disclosure reasonably could be expected to cause damage
to the national security.
The Executive Order specifically limits how classifications are
In no case shall information be classified in order to
conceal violations of law, inefficiency, or
administrative error; to prevent embarrassment to a
person, organization, or agency; to restrain competition;
or to prevent or delay the release of information that
does not require protection in the interest of national
Information shall be declassified or downgraded as soon
as national security considerations permit.
The fact that the relevant POW/MIA related documents were
classified did not prevent the Committee from obtaining them,
however, either in redacted form (with portions blacked out) or in
their entirety. In virtually all instances, the portions redacted
protected intelligence "sources" or "methods" from being
identified, a longstanding practice the Committee recognizes as
valid. In a few instances, the redacted information concerned
deliberative processes which the agencies sought to protect in
order to assure that its personnel would not be inhibited in
discussing the pros and cons of various policies.
Prior Disclosure Efforts
In 1988, then-Congressman Bob Smith introduced legislation
requiring the declassification of POW/MIA records. That effort was
incorporated in an amendment to the Intelligence Authorization Act
for FY 1989 which codified into law the DOD's responsibility to
provide to POW/MIA families any information "which potentially
correlated to their missing loved ones."
In 1990, Congressman Smith introduced legislation ("the Truth
bill"), co-sponsored by more than 200 Members of the House of
Representatives, to require the release of all POW/MIA information,
including live-sighting reports, unless a determination was made
that the release of a particular report would jeopardize the safe
return of any American still held, or would invade the privacy of
a primary next of kin. Due to time constraints, no action on this
legislation was taken by the 101st Congress.
A day before the Committee was created, the Defense Authorization
Act of 1991 was signed into law. This measure included an amendment
sponsored by Sen. John McCain that requires the Secretary of
Defense to declassify live-sighting reports or other information in
DOD's custody about the location, treatment, or condition of any
Vietnam-era POW/MIA. It also requires that the declassified
information be made available in a suitable library-like location
within the Washington, D.C. area for public review and
photocopying. A second library for families' use also will be
established. McCain's amendment protects families' privacy rights,
which reserve information correlated to a serviceman for his
Senate Joint Resolution 125
The Committee's widely shared concern about the declassification
issue next was reflected in Senate Joint Resolution 125, which
memorialized Congress' intent to enact legislation directing
federal departments and agencies to make public information
relating to POWs or MIAs from World War II, the Korean Conflict,
and the Vietnam Conflict. It also directed DoD to list of all
people so classified. The joint resolution was agreed to by the
Senate on February 11, 1992 and by the House of representatives on
February 26, 1992.
Committee Task Force on Declassification
As the Committee's investigative efforts intensified, it recognized
the need to press harder for declassification. In May 1992, the
Committee established a Task Force on Declassification, headed by
Senators Robb and Grassley to identify the POW/MIA documents
needing declassification, prioritize them, and propose a schedule
for their public release at the earliest possible date.
The Task Force interviewed CDO representatives and learned that
CDO's initial intention was to declassify live-sighting reports
first, and then, if approval by POW/MIA families was granted,
declassify some DIA and JCRC casualty files; that was the limit of
CDO's declassification authority. On May 13, 1992, DoD transferred
641 declassified live sighting reports to the Library of Congress
in Washington, D.C. which began indexing the reports for use by the
public. Following initial review of its files of live-sighting
reports, DoD indicated to the Committee that approximately 1,600
first-hand live-sighting reports, and approximately 2,700 hearsay
reports would be declassified by early fall 1992.
The Task Force believed that declassification should go further and
be done by other agencies as well -- to the Defense Intelligence
Agency, the National Security Agency, the Service Intelligence
Agencies, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Central Intelligence
Agency, the National Security Council, and the State Department
among them. The Committee planned to include all of its own
documents in the National Archives, but the use of classified
materials in depositions and interrogatories required an additional
effort to declassify those depositions and interrogatories.
On July 1, 1992, Senators Robb and Grassley recommended, and the
Committee unanimously agreed to:
. transmit a letter to the President requesting expeditious
declassification of POW/MIA records from the Vietnam War;
. direct the Chairman to introduce a resolution to the full
Senate on declassifying POW/MIAs;
. reconvene a Committee meeting within a month to evaluate
progress and consider initiating alternative formal
Senate Resolution 400
The Committee's alternative was contained in Senate Resolution 400,
adopted May 19, 1976. This never-before-tried avenue established
the authority for the Senate to declassify, on its own initiative,
information in its possession:
SEC. 8. (a) The select committee may, subject to the
provisions of this section, disclose publicly any
information in the possession of such committee after a
determination by such committee that the public interest
would be served by such disclosure. Whenever committee
action is required to disclose any information under this
section, the committee shall meet to vote on the matter
within five days after any member of the committee
requests such a vote. No member of the select committee
shall disclose any information, the disclosure of which
requires a committee vote, prior to a vote by the
committee on the question of the disclosure of such
information or after such vote except in accordance with
(b)(1) In any case in which the select committee votes
to disclose publicly any information which has been
classified under established security procedures, which
has been submitted to it by the executive branch, and
which the executive branch requests be kept secret, such
committee shall notify the President of such vote.
(2) The select committee may disclose publicly such
information after the expiration of a five-day period
following the day on which notice of such vote is
transmitted to the President, unless, prior to the
expiration of such five-day period, the President
notifies the committee that he objects to the disclosure
of such information, provides his reasons therefor, and
certifies that the threat to the national interest of the
United States posed by such disclosure is vital and
outweighs any public interest in the disclosure.
(3) If the President notifies the select committee of his
objections to the disclosure of such information as provided
in paragraph (2), such committee may, by majority vote, refer
the question of the disclosure of such information to the
Senate for consideration. such information shall not
thereafter be publicly disclosed without leave of the Senate.
(4) Whenever the select committee votes to refer the
question of disclosure of any information to the Senate
under paragraph (3), the chairman shall, not later than
the first day on which the Senate is in session following
the day on which the vote occurs, report the matter to
the Senate for its consideration.
The primary drawbacks with S.R. 400 were:
. that it had not been tested;
. it required the material to be identified in advance --
requiring the Committee to know exactly what it sought, rather
than getting a wholesale declassification that may have
produced documents whose existence was unknown;
. only the materials in the Senate's possession could be
. putting the law into effect would require a vote of the full
Thus, the Committee tried to obtain a wholesale declassification by
asking the President for an executive order.
Members' Letter to President Bush
To appeal for the best help in getting full declassification -- by
enlisting the aid of the Commander-in-Chief -- the Committee sent
a letter to President Bush on July 1, 1992. It stated, in relevant
We are writing to request that you issue an executive
order to declassify and publicly release all documents,
files, and other materials in the government's possession
that relate to American POWs or MIAs lost in Southeast
Mistrust and suspicion of the government's role and
actions on POW/MIA matters through the years have
hindered efforts to resolve questions related to our lost
American servicemen, and we believe declassifying
documents will begin to provide POW/MIA families the
answers they need and deserve.
Pursuant to Section 1082 of the FY 1992-1993 National
Defense Authorization Act, the defense Department has
begun to declassify certain documents, but the effort
targets only a fraction of POW/MIA materials in the
government's possession. We believe it is in the
interests of all those concerned to achieve much broader
declassification, and have attached a list of documents
that encompasses the full range of information that we
believe should be released as expeditiously as possible.
We reserve the right to add to our request should we
desire additional documents needed to complete our
We understand that for reasons of national security, some
materials to be released to the public require redaction.
However, our investigation has convinced us that the vast
majority of materials related to the POW/MIA issue now
protected by the National Security Classification System
could be released to the public in full with absolutely
no harm or risk to national security or to the families'
right to privacy. . . .
Among the documents the Committee sought were the papers of Henry
Kissinger, former Presidents Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan and
President Bush, WSAG minutes and other materials, live-sighting and
other reports, casualty files (except as protected by families'
right to privacy), DIA's historical, current, and intelligence
files, the files of top Administration officials, including former
Secretaries of Defense Caspar Weinberger and Frank Carlucci, war-
time and post-war NSA product reports, service intelligence files,
imagery files, and documents from the Joint Chiefs of Staff, CIA,
NSC, and State Department. The list was a starting point,
Sen. Grassley explained in a statement to the full Senate:
This list is by no means meant to be finite. During the
course of further investigation, we may discover
additional batches of documents that are as yet unknown
to us. If so, we intend to identify those documents and
communicate our desire to add them to the list. Our
objective in creating the list was to be as specific as
possible in defining the universe of documents to be
declassified, yet general enough to avoid precluding
newly discovered documents from declassification.
Senate Resolution 324
While the National League of Families condemned the move, response
from POW/MIA families was overwhelmingly
To demonstrate the support for declassification that the Committee
believed was widespread, it also sought the backing of the full
Senate for its efforts. On July 2, 1992, Senators Robb and Grassley
introduced Senate Resolution 324 which provided, in pertinent part:
It is the sense of the Senate that the President of the
United States expeditiously issue an Executive Order
requiring all Executive Branch departments and agencies
to declassify any publicly release without compromising
U.S. national security all documents, files, and other
materials pertaining to POWs and MIAs.
In introducing the resolution, Sen. Grassley stated:
. . . The reasons this committee, indeed the public and,
I believe the Senate support this request for
declassification are self-evident. Mystery and suspicion
have shrouded this issue from Day One. National security
secrecy merely feeds the suspicion.
Let there be no doubt -- in adopting this resolution, the
Senate is firmly committing itself, in the public
interest, to full, public disclosure of all documents,
safeguarding only legitimate risks to national security
and families' right to privacy.
By a unanimous vote of 96-0, the Senate agreed to the resolution.
The Committee kept up the pressure to have relevant documents
declassified, sending one of many letters to the Executive
Branch. The letter set forth a timetable and a priority
schedule, to be fully implemented -- and all requested documents
declassified -- by Oct. 31, 1992.
Executive Order 12812
President Bush lent his support to efforts to have declassify
POW/MIA documents on July 22, 1992, as set forth in relevant part
. . . by the authority vested in me as President by the
Constitution and the laws of the United States of
America, I hereby order as follows:
Section 1. All executive departments and agencies shall
expeditiously review all documents, files, and other materials
pertaining to American POWs and MIAs lost in Southeast Asia
for the purposes of declassification in accordance with the
standards and procedures of Executive Order No. 12356.
Sec. 2. All executive departments and agencies shall make
publicly available documents, files, and other materials
declassified pursuant to section 1, except for those the
disclosure of which would constitute a clearly unwarranted
invasion of personal privacy or returnees, family members or
POWs and MIAs, or other persons, or would impair the
deliberative processes of the executive branch.
Central Document Office
In December 1991, recognizing the scope of the Committee's intended
inquiry and in order to comply with the provisions of the McCain
Amendment, Defense Secretary Cheney created the POW/MIA Central
Document Office (CDO) under the Assistance Secretary of Defense
Command Control, Communications and Intelligence.
In compliance with Executive Order 12812, departments and agencies
have begun the task of reviewing and declassifying, to the fullest
extent possible, all documents, files, and other materials
pertaining to American POWs and MIAs lost in Southeast Asia. CDO,
which has coordinated most, but not all, of the declassification
efforts; a November 1992 progress report detailed its
1. Responded to over 400 written Committee requests for
records, documents, files, lists, memoranda, briefings,
notes, summaries, and other material. Served as liaison
between the Committee and various DoD agencies in
scheduling depositions and arranging for witnesses at
2. Organized, trained, and equipped a staff of over 70
military and civilian personnel to redact and declassify
Vietnam-era records and other material requested by the
3. Expended over $2,000,000 in purchased services,
supplies, maintenance, and utilities and rents (not
including the salaries of over 70 DoD military and
civilian personnel). Specifically,
a. Over 3,000,000 pages of copy paper and seven
b. Over 28,800 rolls of correction tape used to redact
sensitive intelligence sources and methods. (If
laid end to end, this tape would extend over 318
miles, or almost five times around Washington's
4. Driven over 7,000 miles in the Washington metropolitan
area retrieving documents from over 20 archival storage sites
and delivering specifically requested documents to the
5. Declassified over 60 depositions taken by Committee
investigators to support open hearings and related activities
including coordinating with external agencies to declassify
6. Made available for committee review an estimated 1.5
million pages of Vietnam-era records. Established an "on
call" delivery and courier service for the Committee staff,
delivering to the Committee offices 100-200 files daily,
provided trained personnel to redact "on the spot" sensitive
intelligence to facilitate the Committee's investigation.
7. Served as the focal point to coordinate declassification
of documents which contained multiple agency equities,
including those of the Department of State, Central
Intelligence Agency, National Security Agency, National
Security Council, Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the
Defense Intelligence Agency. . . .
On Dec. 1, 1992, the DoD issued its mid-course review of CDO
project. Portions of its report are set forth below:
The task set by Congress required that the CDO
(1) task Defense components for documents and supporting
(2) locate, retrieve and consolidate records pertaining
to Vietnam-era POW/MIAs;
(3) redact classified records, when required to protect
sensitive sources and methods, prior to transfer to
(4) prepare documents for public repository, and
(5) serve as the focal point to respond to [Committee]
requests for specific Vietnam-era POW/MIA related
In practice, the CDO devoted an extraordinary amount of time,
effort, and resources to support the [Committee]. On a
typical day, the CDO simultaneously
. supported Committee investigators' review of
classified files in CDO spaces;
. transported classified files to the Office of
Senate Security in the Capitol;
. redacted files for Committee investigators on-the-
spot in the Office of Senate Security;
. delivered as many as 40,000 pages of declassified
material to the Committee offices for investigators
. located, retrieved, and transported from local area
archival storage facilities specific files
requested by the Committee; and
. answered literally dozens of Committee and
investigator questions by telephone or fax. The
committee submitted daily to the CDO as many as ten
letters requesting information. Each letter
contained up to 50 separate requests for documents,
lists, printouts, notes, minutes, and other forms
of record material. The CDO has answered over 400
Committee letters requesting information by
retrieving information from DoD sources at all
levels and making it available to the Committee.
The Committee held eight sets of multiple-day hearings on
POW/MIA related subjects during 1992. It frequently
tasked the CDO, most often on short notice, to declassify
hundreds of pages of specific reports to support these
The CDO reviewed for declassification over 60 Committee
depositions of up to 250 pages each. Materials submitted
by the Committee for declassification often required
multiple government agency review of each document,
including the Central Intelligence Agency, and Department
of State. The Committee encountered difficulty in
obtaining timely, multiple reviews and requested that the
CDO serve as the government-wide focal point for
coordinating this multi-agency review process. The CDO
coordinated and completed all requested reviews,
including the weekend delivery of declassified
depositions to former Cabinet officials.
The CDO also reviewed for declassification numerous
documents the Committee requested which were originated
by non-DoD agencies but reflected DoD equities. These
included such organizations as the Central Intelligence
Agency, National Security Council, State Department,
Federal Bureau of Investigation and Drug Enforcement
Agency. This material is conservatively estimated at
According to the CDO review, DoD's obligations under the McCain
Amendment suffered; at publication time, roughly one-sixth of the
work due by November 1994 is complete. The review detailed progress
on its McCain-Amendment duties:
Simultaneously, and in response to the disclosure
requirement in Section 1082 of the National Defense
Authorization Act, the CDO provided over 100,000 pages of
declassified material to the Federal Research Division of
the Library of Congress to be indexed and microfilmed for
access by the public. The pace and volume of work
accelerated in July when the President directed, by
Executive Order 12812, that all records pertaining to
Vietnam-era POW/MIAs be reviewed for declassification.
This order enlarged the volume of material to be reviewed
for declassification and public release to any estimated
1.5 million pages.
As a result of the heavy workload imposed by the [Committee]
during late 1991 and 1992, the majority of the original task
levied by Congress in Section 1082 remains to be completed.
DIA records include over 17,500 source files from Vietnam,
Laos, and Cambodia. To date, the CDO has declassified 1,613
source files (9 percent). The frequent interruptions of
source file declassification to support Committee requests
have hampered an accurate production estimate on source file
The second major collection of records covered by Section 1082
are the DIA, service, and Joint Task Force-Full Accounting
casualty files. In compliance with Section 1082 family
consent requirements, the CDO drafted and coordinated the
submission, through the service casualty officers, of letters
to the designated next-of-kin of the 2,266 unaccounted for
servicemen requesting consent to release to the Library of
Congress records pertaining to the servicemen's location,
treatment, or condition. To date:
871 (38 percent) have granted consent;
187 (8 percent) have denied consent;
62 (3 percent) have withheld consent; next-of-kin have
asked to be provided a completed, declassified file prior
to providing a decision granting or denying consent;
these files have been declassified and submitted, through
the service casualty officers, to the appropriate next of
No reply has been received from the remaining 1,146 (51
percent); a second follow-up letter has been sent by the
service casualty officers as a good-faith effort to
elicit a response.
In summary, the CDO has supported the Committee's
investigation with a totally unconstrained document
location, retrieval, declassification, and delivery
The results of the Committee's efforts to declassify POW/MIA
information are unparalleled in U.S. history. When the
declassification process is complete, well over one million pages
of previously classified information will have been made available
to the public.
The investigation met significant resistance from certain agencies
of the U.S. Government in the release and declassification of the
. The DIA refused to declassify the "sources" and "methods"
which they had used to build up their files. The Committee
understood the grounds for not declassifying these materials
to the general public since the sources lives could be
endangered, information resources compromised or hard-won
crypto-analysis work lost. It was less understandable why the
DIA refused to disclose the names of sources to appropriately
cleared staff of the Committee so the source's story could be
checked with the original source.
. The CIA initially refused to allow even appropriately cleared
members of the Committee staff to review past and current
operational files (with the notable exception of a detention
camp in Laos). This matter was partially resolved in December
when a single selected staff member was allowed to review the
. CIA officials did not allow the Committee to have access to
their Presidential Daily Briefs. Instead, they reviewed the
documents themselves for POW content and wrote short
summaries of POW related material. These summaries were
made available to the Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the
Committee. Also, the CIA did not allow Committee
investigators to have access to the Executive Registry
which are the DCI's personal office files.
. The NSC refused to allow anyone but Senators to review the
current administration files and limited the review of past
administration files to the Staff Director, Chief Counsel and
three senior staff members.
. The DoD refused to allow anyone but the Chairman and Vice
Chairman to review the POW returnee debriefings from 1973.
This was in spite of a release that the Committee had obtained
from several hundred of the POW returnees involved.
. The DoD OSD/ISA initially refused to provide certain current
files to the staff of the Committee, but later allowed access.
The Committee was disturbed to learn, through internal CDO E-
Mail notes, that ISA had intentionally delayed providing files
in order to pre-screen them.
. The Nixon Archives refused to allow access by the Committee to
any of the Watergate tapes that had been requested. Former
President Nixon's refusal to allow even the most limited
access in the face of repeated requests, letters and
entreaties at the highest levels caused the Committee to draw
sound unfavorable inferences about the actions of the former
President on this issue.
It is unfortunate that the former President had the power to
limit the access and frustrate the wishes of a
constitutionally created Committee of Congress to what was
clearly the best evidence available.
The Committee believes that it has had access to the main materials
on POW/MIA issue within the control of the U.S. Government.
However, it should be noted that the Committee relied on the good
faith compliance of the agencies and departments to its subpoenas
and requests. The Committee had neither the ability nor desire to
storm into a department or agency and "seize" its files for its
In a Government of laws, the Committee relied upon the lawful
compliance of the agencies and departments and found its reliance
well-founded. The areas listed above illustrate this: where the
agency or department would not comply on a good-faith basis, the
issue was joined and the department or agency and the Committee
resolved it in a manner acceptable to the Committee.
The only significant area of non-compliance occurred with respect
to the Watergate tapes, where former President Nixon's attorneys
were able to frustrate the desire of the Committee to review the
tapes for POW/MIA discussions.
The declassification effort has opened a substantial body of
evidence to public scrutiny, but declassification cannot provide
all of the answers. For the U.S. Government and its citizens, the
facts contained in these documents require a judgment. The answers
are not in the blacked-out portions of some U.S. document; if there
are answers, they are in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.
Public Awareness Campaign
The problem of Americans in enemy hands was a visible and painful
reminder of the Vietnam War's cost. Uncertainties about the
prisoners and missing combined with the numbers who came home in
body bags to erode public support for the war.
Vietnam had signed the Geneva Convention governing treatment of
prisoners of war. In an apparent attempt to circumvent the Geneva
Convention, Americans captured by the Vietnamese were regarded as
"international bandits" or "air pirates;" within the prison system,
they were referred to as "criminals," the American public learned
after Operation Homecoming.
Given Vietnamese rejection of any limit on their treatment of
American prisoners, families were prepared to believe stories about
abusive treatment of their kin. When the Vietnamese broadcast anti-
war statements made by, or attributed to, American prisoners, their
cynical manipulation intensified the anger of Americans at home.
Even when Hanoi released Americans in 1968, it sought to manipulate
public opinion by releasing the POWs to war protesters instead of
to U.S. authorities.
The Nixon Administration
When the Nixon Administration took office in 1969, the Vietnam War
dominated American politics. Having promised a plan whereby the
U.S. could bring the war to a close, the Nixon Administration had
to balance international needs against domestic support and
questions about the fate of Americans missing in Southeast Asia
posed a severe complication -- and an opportunity.
The Nixon Administration found one solution for the two related
problems -- how to gain better treatment for American prisoners,
and how to maintain public support for the war until it could be
favorably ended -- a publicity campaign.
Two months after Nixon took office in 1969, Defense Secretary
Melvin Laird demonstrated the United States' new policy on American
prisoners and the U.S. thrust the plight of the prisoners into the
Laird's decision was controversial at the outset. Some critics
thought the prisoners would be better served by quiet efforts
rather than a public campaign. In this view, shared by Kissinger
and Averill Harriman, public criticism would only harden the
Vietnamese and Lao positions, and make it harder to negotiate on
this and related issues. This position was especially attractive to
those who assumed the Vietnam War would be a short one.
Other observers, among them Laird, noted that a quiet approach had
not brought positive results yet, and argued that the Vietnamese
were using prisoners to manipulate American public opinion. POW/MIA
families long had pressed the case for more public support. In late
1966, Sybil Stockdale, wife of Admiral James Stockdale, began
organizing meetings among wives of downed pilots. Eventually, they
obtained some official attention from DoD. In October 1968, the
American media picked up the story of how few letters from
prisoners had been allowed out by the Vietnamese -- only 623 since
the beginning of the war from 108 prisoners.
Laird introduced new attention to POWs publicly on May 19, 1969, by
highlighting North Vietnam's refusal to provide a list of prisoners
and strongly criticizing their position at a press conference:
I am deeply shocked and disappointed by this cruel
response of Hanoi's representative to such a basic
request for humanitarian action. Hundreds of American
wives, children, and parents continue to live in a tragic
state of uncertainty caused by the lack of information
concerning the fate of their loved ones. This needless
anxiety is caused by the persistent refusal by North
Vietnam to release the names of U.S. prisoners of war.
I want to reaffirm the continuing hope that Hanoi will
provide a list of American prisoners and permit a free
flow of mail between U.S. prisoners of war and their
families. We continue to urge the immediate release of
sick and wounded prisoners, the neutral inspection of
prisoner of war facilities, and the prompt release of all
The same month, the Viet Cong put forward a 10-point peace plan
stating that prisoner releases would have to be negotiated by the
parties to the conflict as a part of the total settlement of the
war. Similarly, North Vietnam argued that repatriation of prisoners
must wait until the end of hostilities. The U.S. position was
consistent with the provisions of the Geneva Accords, although not
heavily supported by precedent.
Search for Allies
That year, the U.S. Government sought to bring the issue to
international attention, including by pressing for United Nations
resolutions and action by the Soviet and Chinese Government, allies
of -- and potential conduits to -- the Hanoi Government.
Similarly, the State Department stressed the Geneva Convention on
Prisoners of War, generating a debate over North Vietnam's
reservations about that Convention. In general, North Vietnam
argued that the conflict was not a war, and the Geneva Convention
did not apply -- an argument not widely accepted by the
international community. Hanoi also argued that the prisoners were
war criminals, and thus not entitled to the protection of the
The Nixon Administration also worked with a variety of private
organizations, including the fledgling National League of Families.
By the end of the first year, it added an informal partnership with
VIVA, which originally supported a policy of victory in Vietnam
that had evolved into a POW/MIA awareness promotion. In 1970, DoD
also dealt with the Committee of Liaison with Families of Prisoners
and Missing (COLIAFAM), which opposed the war but was able to
provide for exchange of mail with POWs. By 1972, several regional
organization also became devoted to supporting POW/MIAs as
anticipations of their seemingly imminent return grew.
H. Ross Perot
In the Fall of 1969, Secretary of the Navy John Warner approached
H. Ross Perot to discuss the POW/MIA issue. Perot told Committee
investigators that at that time Warner, Perot's friend, and
Warner's aide (Col. William Leftwich) visited at length about the
POW issue. Warner arranged for Perot to talk with Col. Chappie
James of the DoD, which in turn led to a meeting with Assistant
Secretary of Defense Capen. Eventually, Perot said he talked with
Kissinger, who asked him to mount a private effort to assist
American prisoners. The objective was to embarrass the North
Vietnamese into improving treatment of American prisoners to
improve their chance of surviving. Col. Alexander Haig was Perot's
liaison with the NSC, he said.
Perot said he responded vigorously to the White House request,
launching a spectacular mission that Christmas. A chartered plane
was loaded with carefully designed packages for each prisoner --
even for the missing so as to avoid the appearance of having
decided their fate, no matter how strong the evidence of death. At
the same time, Perot financed a trip to Paris for POW wives and
children, where they appealed directly to the Vietnamese mission
At home, Perot founded "United We Stand," a POW/MIA awareness
group with chapters in most states, which coordinated a letter
campaign to the Vietnamese mission in Paris. Later, Perot learned
from returned prisoners that their treatment did improve in direct
correlation with his efforts.
A further discussion of the impact of Mr. Perot's work during these
years can be found in chapter 7 of this report.
The most memorable private effort was distribution of bracelets
engraved with the name of American POW/MIAs. Begun by Voices in
Vital America (VIVA) and headed at the time by Carol Bates, this
approach raised millions of dollars for travel by families to Paris
and Moscow to repeat Perot's 1969-70 efforts. VIVA also staged
POW/MIA rallies, with guarded help from the DoD.
Nearly a million bracelets have been distributed during the
campaign and since, according to the League.
Son Tay Raid
The Nixon Administration's effective use of the Son Tay raid
supported its efforts to promote public awareness. Launched under
the most stringent secrecy in late November 1970, the raid
penetrated North Vietnam to the prison site at Son Tay, some 75
miles west of Hanoi. The raiders made their way in, found an empty
prison, and flew out.
Subsequently, with genuine heroes to fed, the country celebrated
the effort and honored the participants. The message that the U.S.
was capable of such an action, and the connection between their
efforts and the plight U.S. POWs endured was obvious and overcame
the mission's failure to rescue POWs. The Nixon Administration also
used nationwide commemorations to undergird the public awareness
To date, the United States' best opportunity to learn about the
fates of unaccounted-for servicemen came in February and March
1972, when 591 Americans were returned during Operation Homecoming.
Of the 591 POWs returned between February 12 and April 1, 1973, 457
returned from North Vietnam, 122 from South Vietnam, nine from
Laos, and, following additional diplomatic negotiations, three
returned from China.
In all, 566 were servicemen -- 325 were from the Air Force, 138
belonged to the Navy, 77 were Army and 26 were Marines. The 25
civilians were members of various U.S. Government agencies.
The Vietnamese listed 55 as having died in captivity; returning
POWs put the number at 111. On April 13, 1973 the Pentagon
announced that there was no evidence that any more U.S. POWs were
still alive in Indochina. During this same period, however,
the DOD's Homecoming Center at Clark Air Force Base (the Center)
reported that returning POWs had provided information indicating
that 156 servicemen "may have died in captivity".
In captivity, American servicemen made learning the names of fellow
prisoners the highest priority and pledged to each other that they
would all go home together.
Admiral James Stockdale, who won a presidential citation for his
service to the U.S. while the senior officer held captive,
said the pledge was central to POWs' survival, because it kept them
going through unspeakable torture and other adversity:
In the matter of accountability for Americans in the
prisons of North Vietnam, what appears to be chaotic to
the outside after-the-fact investigators seemed by
contrast comparatively orderly to the self-governing,
self-accounting body of Yanks who spent considerable time
there. Self-governing, self-accounting. That's
important. It had to be a team operation.
We who struggled for years to maintain unity over self,
keeping, memorizing, cross-checking names of all
Americans physically sighted or whispered to or tapped
with, we had stringent requirements to get into the
system. It couldn't be hearsay, it couldn't be anything.
The guy had to have been seen or whispered to or had some
physical contact with somebody.
Found in those dungeons -- all of this activity found in
those dungeons, a meaning of life centered on being your
brother's keeper emerged, keeping a memorialized
chronology of contacts and acquaintances that could some
day, God willing, when papers and pencils were available,
allow you to present to the world a history, in the worst
case, of who was last known to be where.
There were four very tough years from late '65 through
late '69 when many of us were in solitary most of the
time, under the gun of a carrot-and-stick extortion and
torture program, when the deepest fear in many of our
hearts was to be stashed in isolation in some part of
this prison or one of the satellites, where you could
scream to the top of your lungs and nobody would
understand English, to be stashed in isolation, there to
expire by one means or another leaving no audit trail
with your surviving comrades that might some day reach
your family as a creditable account of your last days.
Morbid stuff, but real, and in the last instance, the
trigger that in the strange high-mindedness of solitary
existence drove many of us to be compulsive
communicators, risking all, sometimes when you couldn't
be sure the hall was cleared of guards, to get a position
report out of who you were and what your predicament was,
and we'd do that with that old shave and haircut and our
code that was initiated, that message initiated by that
second nature tap code we had so luckily inherited from
the reconstructed faint memories of a fellow prisoner
named Smitty Harris.
It was not part of a -- the Government never came up with
that. This was prisoner-generated from a memory, from an
enlisted prisoner in Korea that an Air Force captain
named Smitty Harris remembered talking to him about.
That was our lifeline.
What started in August 1964 with the imprisonment of Ev
Alvarez in cell 24 off the Heartbreak Courtyard in Hoa Lo
Prison in downtown Hanoi, he the first American air
crewman captured in North Vietnam, grew over the years to
hundreds of Air Force, Navy, and Marine pilots and back-
seaters attuned to one another's presence only by that
tap code, but kept not only in the hub of the North
Vietnam prison system, this Hoa Lo Prison, but spilled
over into a family of satellite prisons, some few within
the city, but several in the countryside within a radius
of some 60 miles from that old French prison, Ministry of
Justice and its companion piece, Hoa Lo Prison. . . .
Americans were picked out, blindfolded and handcuffed,
and shuttled around in Jeeps during the night, totally
uprooted and taken away from what had become their
dearest friends, clinging to that memory list of 100 or
200 or eventually 300 or more alphabetically arranged
names of those they knew to have been seen, tapped with,
or whispered with in that private American Hoa Lo
universe of ours, while in the meantime our underground
resistance organizations coalesced, became disciplined,
resolute and effective, and then inevitably fell to
purges and were dispersed when these organizations were
compromised or became so effective that they threatened
the commissar's fulfilling the propaganda quotas of the
Build an organization and have it torn down. Build an
organization and have it torn down: That was the rhythm
of our lives. The American prison population grew, the
cycles continued, and familiar names kept popping up at
Hoa Lo Prison. It was our loop, and the same names kept
going round and round.
But it was the Son Tay Raid of November 1970 that
prompted the North Vietnamese to bring them all -- all of
these chickens out in the satellite camps back, all back
to Hoa Lo Prison, where in January 1971 every American
prisoner -- with two exceptions which I'll cover in a
minute -- where every American prisoner who had ever been
sighted, whispered to, tapped to by any other American
over the last 6-1/2 years were all locked up in a ring of
contiguous large cell blocks around the largest west
courtyard of Hoa Lo Prison, and it's half the prison.
The prison occupies about a square block, and this is
almost a half a block, and there we were, a place we
immediately named Camp Unity, 342 of us. That was -- the
time was January 1971. . . .
There were some exceptions, Stockdale added, and some groups
were kept separate:
Little did we 342, in our splendid isolation of that
January 1971, know that a new mixture of American
prisoners was being brought up to Hanoi, not just flight
crews that had been the case all those first 6-1/2 years,
but Army and Marine troops. Prisoners from South Vietnam
and a few from Laos were being moved in unbeknownst to us
and only known to Ted Guy.
We and these last were never mixed until Operation
Homecoming was effectively underway, but by 1971 the war
was in a new phase. Of course, more shot-down flight
crewmen would join us in late '71 and '72, and
particularly a few they took over in 1973, what I call
the second air war in Vietnam. Three Marines, for
instance, joined us, 24 Navy, and something just short of
100 Air Force, counting what were the B-52's. . . .
We memorized the shot-down pilots as their names came in,
but my memory of them and their numbers is nowhere as
vivid as those of my 6-1/2 year sample which I'm
concentrating on, because that is the -- that's the
centerpiece. That went all the way. Men who went through
storms of isolation and torture and lost track of nobody.
351 of them.
We all came home together, as we promised each other we
would, but it was 9 and not 8 that came home in body bags
because Marine Warrant Officer John Frederick, alive and
well at our muster in January of '71, died of an illness
a year later. Ted Guy, of course, joined in and filled
in wherever the number of living -- and kept the number
of living at 342.
Nothing untoward happened to the additional 125 or so
live pilots that joined us that last year -- no
abductions -- and that group brought up the rear at
Homecoming, which was designed to be first-in, first-
In addition to increasing the U.S. Government's information about
life in prison, the returning prisoners brought painful news about
the difficulties they faced even before they got to the prison
system. As Stockdale testified:
Now, I've said nothing about Americans who died after
they pulled the ejection handle or before they were
captured, or after they were captured and before they got
to the gate of Hoa Lo, and I expect there were many.
For most of my imprisonment, I carried the name of a Navy
Lieutenant, Randy Ford, who one of my fellow prisoners at
Hoa Lo told me he whispered to in the darkness at a
holding point near Vinh on the way to prison. He said
Ford was badly injured and [he] never caught sight of
him, but the way he was moaning and barely talking, and
probably would not make it to prison alive.
There were lots of people out there like that, I think.
Ford did not [make it to the prison system], but I
noticed -- I kept track. His remains were returned to
Another witness, Donnie Collins, described the ordeals her husband,
Thomas E. Collins III, suffered before getting to the prison
Tom doesn't talk about the war and what went on there. .
. . But he did tell me that he went down just short of
the target, which was a bridge. The airplane was rolling
at 1,000 feet when we went out of it. He got his back-
seater out. But he was almost -- the plane was almost
upside down when he went out, which basically ejected him
into the ground. It broke his back.
He crawled off under a bush and waited. The townspeople
came out, not too happy to see him, but maybe thrilled
too because they beat him severely. After they beat him
severely, he was taken into the village and questioned.
. . . When he ejected was the number-one time he could
possibly have not made it to Hanoi. Number two time was
when the villagers decided to beat him unmercifully.
The third time was when he was taken in and questioned,
and refused to give any information. He was then taken
out. He was beaten. That's the next time. Taken out
and put in front of the firing squad the next time. He
was then taken back in. At this time he was deaf. They
had beaten him until they burst his eardrums. He was one
total raw piece of meat from heat to toe, unable to walk,
unable to move, unable to hear. They again questioned
him. When he refused to answer anything except what he
was supposed to answer, he was taken out again and lined
up in front of the firing squad.
Now, this isn't enough. He survived all that. Two weeks
later, they put him in a truck to take him to Hanoi, and
on the way there the truck was bombed twice by our
troops. Both times, he said, had they had a direct hit
there was gasoline in the back of the truck where they
were hauling barrels. He could have not made it both
Then -- that wasn't enough -- the truck fell through the
bridge, dumping him into the river with his hands and
feet tied. And just before he took his last breath they
found him the deep river, in the dark of night, and
pulled him out after fishing for him. He finally made it
to Hanoi. . . .
During all this period of time, Tom could have been on
the ground alive and never made it to Hanoi, and never
made it to the prison system, and never made it into the
name list . . . .
Once he was in Hanoi and caused trouble, he was moved
from camp to camp. He was not really in the big system
there. He was in every camp they ever had. They took him
out and put him there because he was a good communicator
and set up communications [among American POWs]. So,
they never wanted him to be anywhere, so they just kept
moving him from place to place and he was, at one time or
another, in all 12 camps, and also in a cave.
He was kept many times in a cave of "one-steppers." And
those of you who have been in Vietnam know what one-
steppers are, which meant that he was just one step from
death when fastened in the cave. At the time the peace
agreement was signed he was not in Hanoi. He was up on
the border and had to be brought back. . . .
At one point, when an American Congressman suggested to
General Giap that the best thing to do was to put an
American in every city in Vietnam so that they would not
bomb North Vietnam, they took that to heart and fastened
Tom and a few of the other POWs to the power plant to
make sure that the Americans didn't bomb that. He hung
there until he nearly died with the French handcuffs
cutting into his wrists. When he was at the point of
death from starvation, they took him down and moved him
in. He came very close at that moment, as he did every
day of his life, to not surviving.
Tom only survived because he is the toughest human being
inside that I have ever known. If I had to go to hell
today and only had one person I could choose to take with
me, I would take Tom and go gladly.