DESPITE doubts expressed by United States officials about the credibility of a Russian document about former American prisoners of war (POWs) in Vietnam, public debate over the mysterious find has thrown a curve into President Clinton's moves to establish ties with Hanoi.
A quiet drive by Mr. Clinton to normalize relations with the former US enemy - a task that his Republican predecessors were happy to leave to him - was already an onerous enough challenge before the recent discovery in a Moscow archive of the 1972 document that claims Vietnam held more than double the number of POWs that it released in 1973.
Not only does Clinton face a powerful lobby of families of missing American servicemen, but given his record of avoiding military service during the war, the president risks criticism if he restores ties with Hanoi without accounting for the remaining 2,260 lost soldiers.
Vietnamese officials who have waited nearly 18 years since the end of the war to see the American flag fly over a US Embassy in Hanoi, now fear that the this latest incident will set back normalization, including an end to a damaging US trade and aid embargo. "The issue of MIAs [those missing in action] is an emotional and sensitive issue in the US," says Ha Huy Thong, deputy head of the North American desk in Vietnam's foreign ministry. "I do not have any illusion that this new issue [over the POW docum ent] will go away quicky." US reviews its policy
US officials say the document has thrown one more complication into the Clinton administration's interagency review of US policy toward Vietnam.
That policy is based on a 1991 "road map" that would grant Vietnam an end to the 18-year US embargo on trade, economic aid, and diplomatic ties in exchange for progress on ending Cambodia's civil war and resolving the fate of US soldiers missing in action since the Vietnam War.
"It's only prudent that we make our own review," says a senior White House official. "In the middle, the document hit the papers.... But future decisions on policy to Vietnam include other things than this document. We're looking at what further progress can be made with the big issues that remain. We want to obtain the fullest accounting of MIAs and have not taken any decision."
The first major step by the Clinton administration toward Vietnam may come on April 28, when the US is widely expected to lift its opposition to loans from the International Monetary Fund during the IMF's spring meeting. The lack of IMF aid has hurt Vietnam's efforts to attract foreign investment, set up a banking system, and reduce a high unemployment rate.
"The timing of this incident shows that some people are trying to slow down the process of normalization," Mr. Thong says. "The question now is what action the US will take at the IMF."
Also at stake, unless the document is accepted as completely inaccurate, is whether Clinton will renew the trade embargo against Vietnam when it runs out in September. US officials have hinted that Clinton would quietly let the embargo lapse, but that may be less possible if debate continues over the POW document.
"We know that a great deal of the information [in the document] is inaccurate," said Clinton's special envoy to Hanoi, retired Gen. John Vessey Jr., after a trip to Vietnam this week. But General Vessey added that he was not sure if he could give a "bottom line" on the entire document. "There are all sorts of possibilities," he said Wednesday after meeting with Clinton in the White House.
Both the US and Vietnam are investigating the document, which is allegedly a Russian translation of a secret memo in Vietnamese from a general to Hanoi's communist party Politburo.
Hanoi has cited a number of inconsistencies in the document which Vessey has accepted, but he prefers to have the document studied more closely. Russia, meanwhile, has agreed to search for the original Vietnamese document, which Hanoi claims never existed. One lingering concern is, who in Moscow's intelligence system wrote the report in 1972. "We don't know what that story is," Vessey said.
A US congressional source close to the POW-MIA issue said the 600 extra prisoners mentioned in the Russian document are most likely allied prisoners from South Vietnam, Thailand, and Korea. Several analysts suggested that the report mistranslated or misconstrued these as being additional American prisoners. Cooperation is increasing
Both the US and Vietnamese want to avoid derailing their new cooperation in hunting down leads on MIAs. Hanoi began its cooperation in 1988, and the pace picked up quickly last year, leading to a permanent US MIA office in Hanoi with six staff and regular field missions to search for leads and to dig up remains.
"It's mindboggling, the difference in cooperation from before," says Keith Gary Flanagan, supervisor for MIA "casualty resolution" at the Hanoi office. During the recent trip, Vessey gave him a copy of a so-called blue book that was the prison register of American aviators held captive in the legendary "Hanoi Hilton."
The US has selected 135 priority cases of MIAs, which it believes the Vietnamese government has information about. "What will be considered a complete accounting of MIAs?" Mr. Flanagan asked. "I don't think you can define it. But there has to be a reasonable accounting."
A powerful POW/MIA lobby in the US will see to that. The lobby - made up of veterans groups, some congressmen, families of the missing, and billionaire Ross Perot - has long insisted that Vietnam has not made a good faith effort of accounting for US soldiers. Based on reported sightings of Caucasians in Vietnam since 1973, they also claim that US POWs may still be alive.
"We oppose IMF loans that use US taxpayers' money to help the infrastructure in Vietnam while they hold back information on the MIAs," says Ann Mills Griffiths of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
Sen. Bob Smith (R) of New Hampshire, co-chairman of the Select Senate Committee on POW-MIA Affairs - which recently disbanded after a fruitless effort to conclusively resolve the debate - wrote to President Clinton last week urging him to block IMF loans to Vietnam and keep trade and diplomatic ties frozen because "only a handful of more than 2,200 unaccounted- for Americans have actually been accounted for in the last two years."
As a result of the lobby's pressure, says former State Department official Fred Brown, "There's no question that the issue of normalization is dead until the Vietnamese clear up" the POW/MIA question.