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An Unpaid Debt From the War In Vietnam

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Robert McNamara took over the covert operation in January 1964. Between January 1964 and October 1967 the Pentagon ordered another 240 agents into North Vietnam. All were declared killed in action. But, like Ngung, these commandos were taken prisoner. Most would serve at hard labor in isolation for 15 or more years, until the last agent at hard labor was released in 1987.

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Why were these agents declared dead? The answer was found in documents declassified in December 1992. Col. Donald Blackburn, the MACSOG commander during 1965-66, reportedly had tired of paying the wives and relatives as stipulated in the agents' contracts for services. He directed the families be paid death benefits and the agents written off as dead.

Between 1961 and '68, at least 456 agents were lost inside North Vietnam. All these agents were declared dead - apparently to save money. Ironically, these commandos were often sent to locate and recover downed US airmen. Two commandos found and rescued two American POWs in South Vietnam. Later the commandos were denied immigration until the Defense Department intervened in 1995 and persuaded a reluctant Immigration and Naturalization Service to reverse itself.

At least 88 former South Vietnamese commandos remain in Vietnam, too impoverished to buy the documents that INS requires. At least 93 of the widows or other family survivors have been located. The first 20 applicants were rejected by INS.

One ray of sunlight is the Kerry-McCain amendment to the 1997 Defense Department budget. Approved on June 19, it provides a $20 million fund in overdue compensation. Each commando may receive $2,000 for each year incarcerated up to a maximum of $40,000 per individual. Tragically, the amendment deliberately excluded one-third of all potential claimants, the parents, and siblings of deceased commandos, more than 150 of whom were not married at the time of their death after capture. Senators John Kerry and John McCain can correct this inequity by adding the parents or siblings as claimants without having to ask for any additional funding.

On June 5, the financial history of MACSOG, 80 boxes containing about 3,000 pages each, began to be opened to public scrutiny at the National Archives in Suitland, Md. The first documents declassified included a list of the 110 agents inside North Vietnam as of January 1966. Col. Ho's report to SOG identified by an asterisk the first 28 men to be written off per Col Blackburn's wishes.

Back from the dead

Americans reported missing in action were kept in that status until reliable information was received that a person was alive or dead. That did not apply to our Vietnamese contract agents. The Vietnamese were expendable. Someone, somewhere, probably hoped they would all die. Instead, they came back from the dead.

In April 1995 the agents, through their attorney John Mattes, asked the US Court of Federal Claims in Washington to pay the agents the money due them from date of capture until date of release, in accordance with their contract to spy for the US. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence held hearings on the issue last week and agreed to pay $40,000 to each of the commandos or their survivors.

In 1973 we closed the door on the unanswered questions about the fate of our own servicemen last reported alive. Now that we found our living agents, we have a moral responsibility to break with the failures of the past.

* Sedgwick Tourison is a retired intelligence officer and author of "Secret Army, Secret War: Washington's Tragic Spy Operation In North Vietnam," Naval Institute Press, Annapolis, Md.