ONCE again, a "smoking gun" on the prisoner of war-missing in action (POW-MIA) issue has turned instead into fools' gold.
This time it was Harvard researcher Steven Morris who discovered Russian-language documents in the Moscow archives that "proved" that in September, 1972, North Vietnam was holding 1,205 American POWs, more than three times the admitted number and more than twice the 591 who came home the following year.
But after reviewing the files of the Defense Intelligence Agency, checking with the Vietnamese during a previously scheduled trip to Hanoi, and obtaining new evidence from Vietnam, Gen. John Vessey, the presidential envoy on POW-MIA matters, returned with a credibility-destroying list of inconsistencies in the Russian documents.
Gen. Tran Van Quang, identified in the documents as the deputy chief of staff of the North Vietnamese Army in 1972, whose report provided the informational basis for the Russian documents, was not in fact the deputy chief of staff at the time alleged. Nor, claim the Vietnamese, is there any record of a politburo meeting on or about the stated date. North Vietnam consolidated rather than dispersed the POW population following the abortive 1970 United States raid on the prison camp at Song Tay.
Most convincingly, General Vessey produced a copy of the previously sought Vietnamese "Blue Book," the handwritten ledger which listed chronologically US aviators captured in Vietnam and that showed that Hanoi likely held at least 200 fewer flyers than the Russian document reported.
Moreover, the likelihood that Hanoi could at any point have captured and then held 600 Americans within the confines of well-known facilities unbeknownst to their fellow POWs and to US intelligence is small.
As has often happened with spectacular developments on the POW-MIA front, the initial myth received far more prominent news coverage and editorial comment than its subsequent debunking.
Our credulous treatment of the Morris information was particularly lamentable, coming as it did barely three months after publication of the report of the US Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, by far the most complete, informed, and objective congressional study of the subject.
The committee was well situated to authoritatively address the critical issue: the number of Americans missing at the time of the armistice and about whose fate there was legitimate question; and the number about whom legitimate question remains today.
NEITHER number was ever very large. The committee found that "a group of approximately 100 civilians and servicemen expected to return at `Operation Homecoming' did not." Of these, about 30 were believed to have been captured in Laos.
The committee found that only in a handful of these cases was there information that the missing individual had actually been captured. Years of access to Vietnam showed that in many of these so-called "discrepancy cases," the individual was killed in action or died in captivity. "The bottom line is that there remain only a few cases in which we know an unreturned POW was alive in captivity, and we do not have evidence that the individual also died in captivity."
The committee criticized the exuberant official remark here and there that may have suggested that the entire POW-MIA issue had been fully resolved and periodic de-emphasis of the issue on the part of the intelligence community, particularly during the late '70s.
But it found no conscious or deliberate effort to dismiss the possibility that some POWs survived or to cover-up evidence to that effect. In the committee's words, "the conspiracy cupboard is bare."
The plain fact, of course, is that at the time the Morris documents were discovered there were not enough missing Americans whose fates were in doubt to justify the number in these documents.
Why the confusion among so many journalists and editorial writers who should know better?
Perhaps because a small core of former national security officials in both Democratic and Republican administrations - some motivated perhaps by ideology, others with lingering personal scores to settle - continue to suggest a POW issue far more expansive than any they were able to identify while in office.
Or perhaps as a hedge against the possibility that one or more Americans will in the future be shown to have survived the release of their comrades, even knowledgable people are playing it cute.
Take, for example, Sen. John Kerry (D) of Massachusetts, chairman of the select committee. On the day he released his report last January, Senator Kerry noted he found "no certainty that anyone was left alive in 1973," and "not even compelling evidence that they were alive."
Kerry then retreated to a formulation unknown to either logic or law, declaring, "There is evidence of the possibility that some people survived in 1973." Evidence of a possibility? Small wonder Kerry's report failed to achieve the "cloture" of national debate he said it deserved.