MIA Facts Site

Report of the
Senate Select Committee
POW-MIA Affairs:
Section 4


Senate Select Committee - IV

Summary of Findings and Recommendations

Americans "Last Known Alive" in Southeast Asia

Information available to our negotiators and government officials responsible for the repatriation of prisoners indicated that a group of approximately 100 American civilians and servicemen expected to return at Operation Homecoming did not. Some of these men were known to have been taken captive; some were known only to have survived their incidents; others were thought likely to have survived. The White House expected that these individuals would be accounted for by our adversaries, either as alive or dead, when the war came to an end. Because they were not accounted for then, despite our protests, nor in the period immediately following when the trail was freshest and the evidence strongest, twenty years of agony over this issue began. This was the moment when the POW/MIA controversy was born.

The failure of our Vietnam war adversaries to account for these "last known alive" Americans meant that families who had had good reason to expect the return of their loved ones instead had cause for renewed grief. Amidst their sorrow, the nation hailed the war's end; the President said that all our POWs are "on the way home"; and the Defense Department, following standard procedures, began declaring missing men dead. Still, the governments in Southeast Asia did not cooperate, and the answers that these families deserved did not come. In 1976, the Montgomery Committee concluded that because there was no evidence that missing Americans had survived, they must be dead. In 1977, a Defense Department official said that the distinction between Americans still listed as "POW" and those listed as "missing" had become "academic". Nixon, Ford and Carter Administration officials all dismissed the possibility that American POWs had survived in Southeast Asia after Operation Homecoming.

This Committee has uncovered evidence that precludes it from taking the same view. We acknowledge that there is no proof that U.S. POWs survived, but neither is there proof that all of those who did not return had died. There is evidence, moreover, that indicates the possibility of survival, at least for a small number, after Operation Homecoming:

bulletFirst, there are the Americans known or thought possibly to have been alive in captivity who did not come back; we cannot dismiss the chance that some of these known prisoners remained captive past Operation Homecoming.
bulletSecond, leaders of the Pathet Lao claimed throughout the war that they were holding American prisoners in Laos. Those claims were believed--and, up to a point, validated--at the time; they cannot be dismissed summarily today.
bulletThird, U.S. defense and intelligence officials hoped that forty or forty-one prisoners captured in Laos would be released at Operation Homecoming, instead of the twelve who were actually repatriated. These reports were taken seriously enough at the time to prompt recommendations by some officials for military action aimed at gaining the release of the additional prisoners thought to be held.
bulletFourth, information collected by U.S. intelligence agencies during the last 19 years, in the form of live-sighting, hearsay, and other intelligence reports, raises questions about the possibility that a small number of unidentified U.S. POWs who did not return may have survived in captivity.
bulletFinally, even after Operation Homecoming and returnee de- briefs, more than 70 Americans were officially listed as POWs based on information gathered prior to the signing of the peace agreement; while the remains of many of these Americans have been repatriated, the fates of some continue unknown to this day.

Given the Committee's findings, the question arises as to whether it is fair to say that American POWs were knowingly abandoned in Southeast Asia after the war. The answer to that question is clearly no. American officials did not have certain knowledge that any specific prisoner or prisoners were being left behind. But there remains the troubling question of whether the Americans who were expected to return but did not were, as a group, shunted aside and discounted by government and population alike. The answer to that question is essentially yes.

Inevitably the question will be asked: who is responsible for that? The answer goes beyond any one agency, Administration or faction. By the time the peace agreement was signed, a decade of division, demonstrations and debate had left our entire nation weary of killing and tired of involvement in an inconclusive and morally complex war. The psychology of the times, from rural kitchens to the Halls of Congress to the Oval Office, was to move on; to put the war out of mind; and to focus again on other things. The President said, and our nation wanted to believe, that all of our American POWs were on the way home. Watergate loomed; other crises seized our attention. Amidst it all, the question of POW/MIA accountability faded. In a sense, it, too, became a casualty of war.

The record does indicate that efforts to gain accountability were made. Dr. Henry Kissinger personally raised the issue and lodged protests with Le Duc Tho and leaders of the Pathet Lao. Defense and State Department spokesmen told Congress of their continuing dissatisfaction with the accounting process; stressed their view that the POW/MIA lists received were not complete, and referred to the cases of Americans last known alive as the "most agonizing and frustrating of all."

However, compared to the high-level, high-visibility protests about prisoners made public during the war, post-Homecoming Administration efforts and efforts to inform the American public were primarily low-level and low-key.

Before the peace agreement was signed, those "last known alive," were referred to as "POWs;" afterward, they were publicly, although not technically, lumped together with all of the others called "missing."

Before the agreement, Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and other Administration officials had berated the North Vietnamese for their failure to disclose the status of these "last known alive" cases, while citing their dramatic case histories and distributing photographs to the press. After Homecoming, Administration criticisms were less vociferous and names and case histories cited only rarely and, even then, not publicly by cabinet officials, but by their assistants and their assistants' assistants.

When the war shut down, so, too, did much of the POW/MIA related intelligence operations. Bureaucratic priorities shifted rapidly and, before long, the POW/MIA accounting operation had become more of a bureaucratic backwater than an operations center for matters of life and death.

From the fall of Saigon in 1975 through the early 1980's, efforts to gain answers from the Government of Vietnam and the other communist governments of Southeast Asia bore little fruit. In 1982, President Reagan wisely raised the issue of accounting for our missing to a "matter of highest national priority." In 1987, a Special Presidential Emissary to Vietnam was named and serious discussions resumed. More recently, the disintegration of the Soviet empire has opened new doors and created compelling new incentives for foreign cooperation -- almost 20 years after the last American soldier was withdrawn. Today, the U.S. spends at least $100 million each year on POW/MIA efforts.

Still, the families wait for answers and, still, the question haunts, is there anyone left alive? The search for a definitive answer to that question prompted the creation of this Committee.

As much as we would hope that no American has had to endure twenty years of captivity, if one or more were in fact doing so, there is nothing the Members of the Committee would have liked more than to be able to prove this fact. We would have recommended the use of all available resources to respond to such evidence if it had been found, for nothing would have been more rewarding than to have been able to re-unite a long-captive American with family and country.

Unfortunately, our hopes have not been realized. This disappointment does not reflect a failure of the investigation, but rather a confrontation with reality. While the Committee has some evidence suggesting the possibility a POW may have survived to the present, and while some information remains yet to be investigated, there is, at this time, no compelling evidence that proves that any American remains alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.

The Committee cannot prove a negative, nor have we entirely given up hope that one or more U.S. POWs may have survived. As mentioned above, some reports remain to be investigated and new information could be forthcoming. But neither live-sighting reports nor other sources of intelligence have provided grounds for encouragement, particularly over the past decade. The live- sighting reports that have been resolved have not checked out; alleged pictures of POWs have proven false; purported leads have come up empty; and photographic intelligence has been inconclusive, at best.

In addition to the lack of compelling evidence proving that Americans are alive, the majority of Committee Members believes there is also the question of motive. These Members assert that it is one thing to believe that the Pathet Lao or North Vietnamese might have seen reason to hold back American prisoners in 1973 or for a short period thereafter; it is quite another to discern a motive for holding prisoners alive in captivity for another 19 years. The Vietnamese and Lao have been given a multitude of opportunities to demand money in exchange for the prisoners some allege they hold but our investigation has uncovered no credible evidence that they have ever done so.

Yes, it is possible even as these countries become more and more open that a prisoner or prisoners could be held deep within a jungle or behind some locked door under conditions of the greatest security. That possibility argues for a live-sighting followup capability that is alert, aggressive and predicated on the assumption that a U.S. prisoner or prisoners continue to be held. But, sadly, the Committee cannot provide compelling evidence to support that possibility today.

Finally, there is the question of numbers. Part of the pain caused by this issue has resulted from rumors about hundreds or thousands of Americans languishing in camps or bamboo cages. The circumstances surrounding the losses of missing Americans render these reports arithmetically impossible. In order for Americans to judge for themselves, we will append to this report a summary of the facts surrounding each known discrepancy case. An analysis of these incidents will show that:

bulletonly in a few cases did the U.S. Government know for certain that someone was captured;
bulletin many of the cases, there is only an indication of the potential of capture; and
bulletin a large number of the cases, there is a strong indication that the individual was killed.

The Committee emphasizes that simply because someone was listed as missing in action does not mean that there was any evidence, such as a radio contact, an open parachute or a sighting on the ground, of survival. We may make a presumption that an individual could have survived, and that is the right basis upon which to operate. But a presumption is very different from knowledge or fact, and cannot lead us--in the absence of evidence--to conclude that someone is alive. Even some of the cases about which we know the most and which show the strongest indication that someone was a prisoner of war leave us with certain doubts as to what the circumstances were. The bottom line is that there remain only a few cases where we know an unreturned POW was alive in captivity and we do not have evidence that the individual also died while in captivity.

There is at least one aspect of the POW/MIA controversy that should be laid to rest conclusively with this investigation and that is the issue of conspiracy. Allegations have been made in the past that our government has had a "mindset to debunk" reports that American prisoners have been sighted in Southeast Asia. Our Committee found reason to take those allegations seriously. But we also found in some quarters a "mindset to accuse" that has given birth to vast and implausible theories of conspiracy and conscious betrayal. Those theories are without foundation.

Yes, there have been failures of policy, priority and process. Over the years, until this investigation, the Executive branch's penchant for secrecy and classification contributed greatly to perceptions of conspiracy. In retrospect, a more open policy would have been better. But America's government too closely reflects America's people to have permitted the knowing and willful abandonment of U.S. POWs and a subsequent coverup spanning almost 20 years and involving literally thousands of people.

The POW/MIA issue is too important and too personal for us to allow it to be driven by theory; it must be driven by fact. Witness after witness was asked by our Committee if they believed in, or had evidence of, a conspiracy either to leave POWs behind or to conceal knowledge of their fates--and no evidence was produced. The isolated bits of information out of which some have constructed whole labyrinths of intrigue and deception have not withstood the tests of objective investigation; and the vast archives of secret U.S. documents that some felt contained incriminating evidence have been thoroughly examined by the Committee only to find that the conspiracy cupboard is bare.

The quest for the fullest possible accounting of our Vietnam-era POW/MIAs must continue, but if our efforts are to be effective and fair to families, they must go forward within the context of reality, not fiction.


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