Senate investigators are looking into assertions that American prisoners of war were still being held by the Vietnamese in 1978--five years after all U.S. servicemen were supposed to have been returned to American soil.
A Senate select committee said Thursday that it plans to interview retired KGB Maj. Gen. Oleg Kalugin on his statements that Soviet intelligence agents interrogated at least three American POWs still in Vietnam that year, despite Hanoi's insistence that no U.S. POWs remained.
Senate sources said that Kalugin, who disclosed the Soviet interrogations in an interview with the Los Angeles Times Magazine last year, has agreed to answer questions for a deposition to be taken by staff investigators for the panel.
Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.), the committee's co-chairmen, also announced that they plan to visit Moscow in the next few weeks to interview other former Soviet officials who may have knowledge of the affair.
Kalugin's disclosures are likely to intensify the controversy over the possibility that American POWs or servicemen who have been listed as missing in action are still being held in Southeast Asia.
POW-MIA groups have contended for years that Americans still are being held prisoner in countries such as Laos and Vietnam. But the government has insisted it cannot find any hard evidence of that.
In another development, New York Newsday quoted a retired intelligence officer as saying that he has personal knowledge of more than 400 American prisoners being held in Vietnam in 1984 and knew of many others transferred as laborers to the former Soviet Union.
Retired Air Force Tech. Sgt. Terrell A. Minarcin, a cryptolinguist and communications specialist, monitored communications from Vietnam for the National Security Agency until July, 1984. He claims in a sworn affidavit to Congress, obtained by Newsday, that between 200 and 300 American prisoners of war were shipped to the Soviet Union in 1983.
Minarcin, who also is scheduled to give a deposition to the Senate POW committee next week, said in his November, 1991, affidavit that from January, 1983, until July, 1984, "I found 436 live American POWs," the paper reported in today's editions.
Kalugin told the Associated Press on Thursday that he knows of at least three Americans who were questioned by Soviet agents in 1978--a naval officer, an Air Force pilot and a CIA officer. He said all three have since been returned to the United States.
Kalugin said the three were among "the remnants--several, a dozen or so--who stayed in Vietnam" long after the war had ended. "Why the Vietnamese kept them, I don't know," he told the AP.
The fresh allegations drew reactions from both sides in the controversy. A State Department spokesman said U.S. Embassy officials in Moscow have met with Kalugin twice since The Times article appeared and are "actively investigating" his assertions.
The department said the United States also has asked the new Russian government for help in locating any Americans who may have been held by the Soviets in connection with the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War II, and will meet with Kalugin next week.
But at the same time, the Defense Intelligence Agency said DIA agents talked to Kalugin in December but found that he had no firsthand knowledge of the interrogations and did not know who was questioned.
"There is nothing new here," said Defense Department spokeswoman Susan Strednansky. "We are following up all leads we get, but some just don't go anywhere. We are pressing the Vietnamese for any records they might have, but they say they are not holding any Americans."
On the claims made by Minarcin, Strednansky said that the Pentagon had looked into his allegations but had found "no intelligence to support his claims."
Kerry also was cautious about Kalugin's assertions. "I don't think we can draw any conclusions about his veracity at this point in time," he told a press conference in Massachusetts on Thursday. He said investigators have found inconsistencies in Kalugin's account but conceded that the panel did have evidence from other sources that "a couple of CIA personnel were interrogated at one point."
Nevertheless, representatives of POW-MIA groups called the developments significant and said they thought the former KGB officer's testimony could open the door to more information about POWs who may still be imprisoned in Southeast Asia.
Delores Alfond, chairwoman of the National Alliance of Families, said she thought it was "marvelous that Kalugin is coming out" but chided the Senate panel for not having acted last October, when The Times article was published. "What our question is, is why has it taken them over two months to do something about it?" she said in a telephone interview.
Meanwhile, retired Lt. Gen. Eugene Tighe, who headed the DIA in 1981, said Thursday that Kalugin's disclosures suggest that the Soviets may have kept some American POWs aside for interrogation without the knowledge of U.S. intelligence analysts.
Tighe said in a telephone interview that he has found it difficult to believe Soviet assertions--confirmed by returning American POWs--that Moscow, which apparently had the most to gain from interrogating prisoners of war, never appeared to have tried to do so.
If Kalugin's claims are accurate, Tighe said, it appears that the Soviets had "a separate track" for interrogating U.S. prisoners, possibly largely unknown to all but a select few even within the KGB. Tighe has said repeatedly that he believes not all American POWs were returned.
Kalugin was quoted in The Times article as having said that Soviet agents "did participate in the interrogation of American prisoners," but he gave no firm date for the questioning, though he indicated it may have been as late as 1976.
But in interviews with the New York Daily News and the AP, he pinpointed the date as 1978, apparently after having consulted personal notes or records. The United States ended its direct involvement in the Vietnam War in 1973.
There have been occasional reports over the years of American prisoners having been sighted in Southeast Asia. More than 2,000 U.S. servicemen are still listed as missing in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos.
At a press conference, New Hampshire's Sen. Smith called the Kalugin revelations "pretty dramatic stuff" and said the panel already has been "pursuing it" for some time. "It certainly ups the ante," Smith said in an interview.
Smith said members of his staff already have interviewed Kalugin in Moscow and that the former KGB general has suggested the names of other former Soviet officials who might have more knowledge.