‘MIA Photos’ Bring Sense of Deja Vu From 15 Years Ago


The fuzzy pictures from the jungle, the missions to Hanoi, the congressmen promising to get to the bottom of it. There’s a sense of deja vu .

Fifteen years ago, Rep. G. V. (Sonny) Montgomery chaired a special House committee that concluded there were no live American prisoners in Indochina and no hope of finding out what happened to all the missing.

But the release last month of a grainy photograph showing three men holding a sign nobody can decipher has again focused interest on the MIA issue.

The Senate acted with a speed seldom seen on Capitol Hill as it set up a special committee to investigate whether there are any live MIAs in Vietnam. The elapsed time for hearings, debate and vote: less than two weeks.


There also are calls for the President to appoint a commission and for establishing another special committee in the House to seek an accounting for the 2,273 Americans still missing from the lost war.

Montgomery, though, is staying on the sidelines. “I haven’t been involved with this,” the Mississippi Democrat said.

The Bush Administration has had to defend its efforts to get an accounting of the MIAs.

Brent Scowcroft, President Bush’s national security adviser, said in late July that there was no credible evidence U.S. soldiers were still being held. Four days later, Defense Secretary Dick Cheney ordered the Pentagon to nearly double the size of its staff working to resolve the POW and MIA issue.

Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams said the move was not related to the new reports of MIA sightings. “We’re starting to get more access to Vietnamese records, more access to crash sites, that kind of thing,” he said. “As Vietnam turns over more remains to us, that requires (more staff). It’s a very painstaking process and it takes more people to do it.”

At the same time, the Pentagon reported that it had lost fingerprint records, and supposedly human remains that turned out to be non-human bones.


Groups that have made a living on the POW-MIA issue talk about the possibility of a government cover-up.

None of this is really new.

Montgomery’s panel, the House Select Committee on Missing Persons in Southeast Asia, did a 15-month investigation, took testimony from dozens of witnesses and interviewed more than 150 other people. The evidence then was much the same as it is now: reports of sightings, mysterious photographs, letters. None of it held up.

The committee concluded in December, 1976, that there were no live American prisoners in Indochina and no hope of finding out what happened to everybody who got lost.

Ann Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia, said the committee’s report was “based on the word of the Vietnamese and speculation.”

About two months after Montgomery’s report, the league issued its own, accusing him of overstepping his bounds, keeping committee members in the dark and forcing the panel to reach poorly supported conclusions.

Griffiths said the league is still convinced there are live Americans being held prisoner in Southeast Asia. She said this is based on facts. She said the league doesn’t know where the men are being held or who is holding them or why. She said that would be “speculation.”

The league also criticized Montgomery for not spending all his money. “The league was shocked to learn that about one-half of the $350,000 allotted was returned to the House of Representatives,” its critique said.

“We weren’t aiming to save money,” said Angus McDonald, a retired Marine colonel who served in Vietnam and was staff director of Montgomery’s committee. The determination had been made that the committee had gone as far as it could and there just happened to be money left over, he said.

“We on the staff were convinced that there was nothing we could do any further except invade North Vietnam,” McDonald said.

But it was an election year, and the fate of missing Americans became an issue. Candidate Jimmy Carter said one of the most “embarrassing failures” of the Gerald R. Ford Administration was its inability to get the Vietnamese to give a full accounting of the missing Americans.

Once President, Carter appointed a five-member commission that went to Hanoi and then came back and gave him a report.

It said all the missing Americans there either were not being held against their will or were dead. The presidential commission also concluded that “it is probable that no accounting will ever be possible for most of the Americans lost in Indochina.”

The league didn’t like that report either.

“I do not think there was a conspiracy and cover-up, and in fact I do not believe the United States is capable of a conspiracy or cover-up,” Griffiths said.

There is a presumption by some people that officials have been lying, since this is a war the United States lost, McDonald said. “They don’t trust the enemy, and they don’t trust the government.”

The leader of another veterans’ group, Mary Stout of the Vietnam Veterans of America, said that despite the government’s recent self-contradictions and other lapses, such as losing fingerprint records, she believes the government is serious about dealing with this issue.

“The increase in the number of people on the ground is an attempt to get this issue resolved as quickly as possible,” she said.

Griffiths, too, is hopeful that new cooperation by the Hanoi government will mean an end to the wondering.

“We hope that some are alive,” she said. “But alive or dead, if they get accounted for that answers the question.”

However, McDonald is not so optimistic that new investigations will find new information. When asked what he expects to turn up, he replied: “More of the same.”