Unfriendly Fire : POW-MIA activist Ann Mills Griffiths is a power player in Washington. Critics say that power has gone to her head.


Her father had been missing in Indochina for nearly 25 years, and suddenly there was a controversial photograph of him, along with two other American MIA soldiers, somewhere in the jungle. Shelby Robertson Quast was desperate for information, and when she spotted Defense Secretary Dick Cheney at a POW-MIA meeting here last month, she made a beeline for his table.

But Ann Mills Griffiths, who heads the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, would have none of that.

“(Griffiths) stood up and snapped: ‘Get them out of here.’ Ann was looking very tense and upset,” says Albro Lundy III, who accompanied Quast to the table and says his father is in the same widely publicized photo. “It was a pretty awkward moment.”


As Quast began to speak, a league official tried to pull her away, but backed off when Carl Ford, assistant secretary of defense, explained that he had escorted the families up to Cheney. It was a misunderstanding, Griffiths says. But Quast is still rattled by the incident.

“This whole thing shows me that league officials don’t want family members getting that close to the top,” she says. “(Griffiths) never once offered to help us, and I can’t believe that someone who’s supposed to be there for POW families would act that way. Why would she do that?”

The question is important because Griffiths is the civilian player on a highly emotional issue that has recently taken center stage in Congress. In the last few weeks, House and Senate members have been debating the origin of photographs purporting to show live U.S. prisoners in Southeast Asia, and some critics have accused the Bush Administration of downplaying the issue.

Even though Pentagon officials question the authenticity of the pictures, arguments continue over whether American prisoners are still alive in Asia. Last week the Senate voted to form a select committee to study the issue, and a presidential commission on POWs may be created.

“Nobody works harder on this issue than Ann, and she’s very, very intelligent,” says Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was a POW in North Vietnam. “Yet she’s shrouded in controversy.”

One reason, suggests California Rep. David Dreier (R-La Verne), is “there’s a perception these days in the POW-MIA community that you’re either with Ann and the league, or you’re against them. They’re a divided bunch of folks, and they definitely let you know how they feel.”


Controversy has been dogging Griffiths throughout the 13 years she has directed the league, the nation’s largest and most influential POW-MIA group. Tough, sharp-tongued and aggressive, she has won praise from presidents, generals and members of Congress for the depth of her knowledge and commitment.

But others view her as a brusque, imperious climber--a Leona Helmsley of the Beltway who doesn’t have time for the little people and is too cozy with the powers that be.

Although the league insists that more must be done to resolve the fate of 2,273 missing American soldiers, some critics say its director is a self-aggrandizing Pentagon mouthpiece. Others attack her for failing to release--and even suppressing--information about POWs and MIAs.

Despite the controversy, her power continues to grow. Feared and respected, Griffiths is taken on publicly by only a handful of Washington officials. She is the only non-governmental member of a task force that helps formulate national policy on the POW issue. More important, she has a top-secret security clearance that is greater than Congress members and has traveled to Vietnam as part of official U.S. delegations.

“When I first met her, she was very beautiful and outspoken in all the right ways,” says one veteran POW activist who asked not to be identified. “But now we’ve created a media star, and we’ve lost her. I don’t know how to explain her issue positions. They mystify me.”

There also is an air of mystery about Griffiths. Little has been written about this intensely private woman, and she keeps a tight lid on the details of her personal life. A 49-year-old divorced mother of three, she grew up in Bakersfield and some of her family members live in Orange County. Beyond that, she offers scant information.


“I’m happy to answer questions about the league,” Griffiths says. “But I like to keep my family members out of this. Let’s talk about the issues.”

As she sips a cup of coffee in her office, the dark-haired director listens to a recitation of the attacks on her and then brushes them off with irritation. Griffiths says she simply doesn’t have time to deal with each one, because the league’s work is more important.

Pointing out the progress made under the Bush and Reagan administrations, she insists that most of the group’s 3,780 members support her, despite the accusations of a minority faction that is forever dissatisfied with her performance.

Griffiths “pays a heavy price” for dealing in facts--not fantasies--on the volatile POW-MIA issue, says Richard Childress, who ran the National Security Council’s Asian affairs section during the Reagan Administration and worked closely with her. “There’s an angry nut fringe on this issue,” he contends, and the league’s director is caught in the cross-fire.

“For some reason, you know, I’m always a target,” Griffiths agrees. “That’s because I have been executive director for so long and the league is a target. Some of these people seem to think that if they can somehow get me to say: ‘That’s it, I’ve had enough’ . . . that they can take over the National League of Families. Well, they’re wrong.”

Many of Griffiths’ enemies, however, say they could care less about internal league politics. In recent years, she has been plunged into one controversy after another, coming under fire from members of Congress, disgruntled POW activists and former Pentagon officials.


The most sensational charges were made in February by Col. Millard Peck, a highly decorated combat veteran who quit his post as chief of the POW-MIA unit of the Pentagon’s Defense Intelligence Agency. Contending that there is an official “mind-set to debunk” evidence of live American prisoners, Peck singled out Griffiths for heavy criticism.

“She is adamantly opposed to any initiative to actually get to the heart of the problem and, more importantly, interferes in or actively sabotages POW-MIA analyses or investigations,” he wrote in a blistering internal memo.

“As the principal actor in this grand show, she is in the perfect position to clamor for more progress while really intentionally impeding the effort. And there are numerous examples of this. Otherwise, it is inconceivable that so many bureaucrats in the ‘system’ would instantaneously do her bidding and humor her every whim.”

Last year Sen. Charles Grassley (R-Iowa) also blasted Griffiths for trying to block his access to sensitive data on potential “live sightings” of American POWs by Southeast Asian refugees. In a memo to the State Department, Griffiths insisted these files should be tightly guarded and must not be used for a “witch hunt” by critics of government policies.

Grassley was incensed, asking: “Why is it that (Griffiths) can see (POW files), but not a United States senator? Could it be that after years as a quasi-governmental official that she has become afflicted with a disease known as ‘bureaucratitis’?”

Finally, there has been disillusionment with Griffiths’ leadership at the grass-roots level. Dolores Alfond, a Bellingham, Wash., activist who has formed a rival POW group, says: “My personal feeling is that Ann’s work is contrary to the interests of the MIA families, and this is a sad thing. I don’t understand her motives. . . . A group like hers should be representing families’ needs, not the needs of the government.”


In a nutshell, the U.S. government believes that although it does not have direct evidence of live American prisoners in Southeast Asia, it cannot rule out the possibility that they exist and continues to treat the search for these men as a high priority.

Griffiths supports this view--even though some POW activists say it does not go far enough--and her ascent is a source of pride to many league members. George Brooks, a longtime member, recalls that she once was a naive but well-meaning activist, like other members. None were polished in the ways of Washington. But as the 1980s wore on, “I would be walking at her side in the Pentagon and she’d be on a first-name basis with generals. I was amazed.”

Other advocates take a dim view, saying Griffiths has succumbed to Potomac fever.

Take the case of Anne Hart, a Florida woman whose husband was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh trail in 1971. Hart gained notoriety in the early 1980s for her battle to reverse the government’s identification of a handful of bones as those of her husband. She proved that the remains, taken from a Laotian crash site, could not be positively identified.

It was a bitter fight, yet Hart says she got no help from Griffiths or the league.

“She didn’t directly oppose me, but she offered covert opposition,” Hart says. “She told me that what I was doing would be detrimental to the efforts of the league to get more remains from crash sites. And she kept putting out information in the league newsletter to the effect that the laboratory that did all the identifications was doing a wonderful job.”

Griffiths’ refusal to champion her cause didn’t surprise her, Hart says, because “it’s a really heady experience for anyone living in the hinterlands outside the (Washington) Beltway to be rubbing elbows with, and be on a first-name basis with, people from the secretary of state or secretary of defense.

“If you’re impressed with those kind of things, nobody has to say to you: ‘Be good, or you won’t be in the inner circle.’ It’s understood.”


Although she maintains a steely outward calm, Griffiths is clearly angered by the charges against her. Like other league members, her family carries an open wound from the Vietnam War. On Sept. 21, 1966, Griffiths’ 26-year-old brother, Lt. Cmdr. James Mills, was shot down in his Navy F-4 over North Vietnam and has yet to return. How, she wonders, could a person like her be accused of working against the interests of POW-MIA families?

Ticking off a tart response to each attack, Griffiths says Peck’s charges are “totally ridiculous” because the outspoken colonel was allegedly incompetent and had to be removed from his position. His short tenure, she told a House Foreign Affairs subcommittee, “was largely irrelevant to the U.S. government’s efforts to account for missing Americans. Had his unfounded accusations not been made public . . . it would have been completely irrelevant.”

As for Grassley’s complaints, Griffiths shakes her head and says she still can’t figure out his motives. The senator was eventually given permission to read sensitive POW intelligence reports, but with key restrictions on who could be there with him.

“I don’t know what he wanted,” she says. “Is he an intelligence analyst? Can he take raw data? Did he want to release it? I don’t know.”

But it is criticism from people such as Dolores Alfond and Anne Hart that rankles the most. Griffiths rolls her eyes at their charges, saying they are utterly irrelevant to the job she’s trying to do. It’s a plus for the league to have her in such a prominent position, she insists, and if it wasn’t, she would have lost control long ago.

To be sure, there were mistakes made on Anne Hart’s case. But Griffiths believes nothing was done out of malevolence. As long as she is in office, the director says, the league will support any Administration that makes a good-faith effort to resolve the POW problem.

“This issue has very compelling facts,” she says flatly. “It doesn’t need elaboration, speculation, second-guessing, would-be Pied Pipers or saviors.”


Judy Taber, Griffiths’ sister and the league’s Western coordinator, says Griffiths is consumed by her job, only to be attacked by people who don’t understand the issue.

She contends that the attacks also come from people who are unscrupulously trying to exploit the POW community for personal gain. In recent years, a parade of would-be Rambos have promised--and then failed--to bring American prisoners home from Indochina, sometimes bilking families of thousands of dollars and causing them emotional heartache.

“Ann has worked hard to expose many of these opportunists, and that’s why they have been so critical of her,” Taber adds. “They have to get her out of the way, so they attack her.”

It’s a waste of time, contends league member Brooks, because Griffiths is a highly competent executive. And the idea that she could be accused of covering up POW information or somehow blocking the return of American servicemen, he adds, is an affront to the league’s integrity.

The POW-MIA community, however, is rife with rumor and speculation. Some activists venture theories, all unproved, that the U.S. government is reluctant to uncover evidence of live prisoners because doing so would reopen the Vietnam War and expose bureaucratic malfeasance.

These conspiracy buffs say Griffiths is part of the cover-up. But it’s a tribute to her political clout that no members of Congress who were asked about such theories would speak negatively on the record. One senator, who asked not to be identified, speculated that Griffiths’ access to power, as well as her privately paid $65,000 salary, best explain her actions.


“Is it in her best interests that this issue be resolved, or that it continue, along with her influence?” this senator asked. “I think Ann Griffiths is a smart person, but she’s more a part of the problem than the solution. It didn’t start out this way, but she’s been co-opted by power.”

Born in Oklahoma on Aug. 16, 1941, Griffiths was one of three children. The family moved to Kernville, Calif., and later to Bakersfield, where her father, E. C. (Bus) Mills, was a high school principal. A bright student, Ann says she was raised to be a mother and she eventually married, bringing up three children.

Her life was changed forever when her brother, James Mills, was shot down over North Vietnam. In the years after, Ann’s family helped form the nucleus of the League of Families in California. E. C. Mills eventually became executive director from 1973 to 1974, and Ann served on the board of directors. She took a more prominent role and was elected executive director when her father’s health failed in the late 1970s.

“Did I ever dream I would be doing the things I’m doing? No. I felt like I had to take over the responsibility (when) my father got leukemia. He has now been dead for 10 years. I was the one (to carry on). . . . I had to be the one.”

In the league’s early years, she and other members fought for credibility. Griffiths remembers picketing the White House, the United Nations, lobbying Congress and working with the media to keep the initially unpopular POW issue alive. It was not easy.

Just before Christmas, 1976, for example, the U.S. government tried to close the book on the entire issue. A House panel, supported by President Jimmy Carter, determined that there were no live Americans being held prisoner in Indochina. Griffiths was outraged.


“The conclusion that all POWs and MIAs should be declared dead is ludicrous ,” she said in an angry statement issued to the press. “For the first time, we have an opportunity to obtain actual information on what happened to these missing Americans.”

The tide began to turn when Ronald Reagan took office in 1981. Suddenly, the Administration announced that resolving the fate of missing American servicemen would be the highest national priority. After years of benign neglect, Griffiths says, the White House began committing more resources to the problem and actively pursued the issue in negotiations with the Vietnamese.

During the 1980s, the Reagan Administration stepped up the pace of these talks, sending several delegations to Hanoi. More than 150 sets of remains alleged to be those of U.S. servicemen were returned, and Southeast Asian refugees were screened more thoroughly for any knowledge they might have of missing Americans.

“Little by little, things began to improve,” Griffiths recalls. “The U.S. government goofs up regularly on many issues. Nobody says they’re perfect. But they do have the right policy.”

The changes between past and present, she adds, are dramatic.

Toward the end of the Carter Administration, a small inter-agency group was formed by the White House to focus on the POW issue, and Griffiths was invited to join. The group was designed to “get us off their backs . . . to patronize the league,” she says. But it has mushroomed into something far more influential under Reagan and Bush.

Today, Griffiths is a key member of the unit, helping to chart official strategy on the POW-MIA issue. More than anything else, her membership and the power it brings symbolizes her evolution from an agitator to a behind-the-scenes team player.

Childress, from the National Security Council, recalls that “as time went on, (Griffiths) was not in a position where she had to bang and beat on people. There was a strategy, and the league had a role in trying to make it work.”


And yet . . . the attacks on Griffiths continue.

Brooks and other allies can’t imagine what would happen if she left her post and say it’s crucial that she continue. But the director suggests that the POW-MIA wars have taken a toll. They’ve affected her health, and she doesn’t spend enough time with her children. She almost never takes a vacation, and on a recent morning Griffiths looked run-down.

“I’m very tired. I’m physically exhausted,” she says, putting down a cup of coffee. “I get frustrated with nonsense, and I see the wheel getting reinvented.

“I am very tired of educating people, including rotational people in the government. I can’t begin to tell you the number of admirals, the State Department desk officers, new deputy assistant secretaries. . . .” Her voice trails off.

“You know, I’m tired.”