WASHINGTON — The United States on Monday downgraded a delegation going to Vietnam for talks on still-unaccounted-for prisoners of war and servicemen missing in action.
Assistant Secretary of Defense Richard L. Armitage and Assistant Secretary of State Paul D. Wolfowitz over the weekend canceled their plans to visit Hanoi, leading to speculation that the long-anticipated meeting would be postponed indefinitely.
On Monday, however, a State Department spokesman said the visit will go ahead Wednesday and Thursday but that the U.S. and Vietnamese delegations will both be made up of lower-ranking officials because Vietnamese Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach will be in Moscow at the time.
"No one here considers this a setback," the State Department spokesman said. "It's useful to talk about this problem at any level."
'No Damper on Talks'
And Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman (R-N.Y.), a member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, said, "I don't think this puts a damper on the talks."
The State Department official blamed Richard Childress, a National Security Council staff member who was in charge of arrangements for the trip, for not being aware that Thach would be out of the country at the time of the Americans' visit.
Childress failed to learn of Thach's travel plans, the official said, even though his schedule was known well before the U.S. delegation was announced on Aug. 16. Childress could not be reached for comment.
Officials had speculated that Thach's absence might have been a calculated snub because of Washington's repeated emphasis that the talks should not be interpreted as a move toward normalization of diplomatic relations with Hanoi. But the State Department official said this was not so.
"The Vietnamese," he said, "are probably trying to figure out how we could be so incompetent."
Childress will now be the nominal head of the group, which will seek to learn the fate of more than 2,400 servicemen still unaccounted for from the Vietnam War.
Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners of War and Missing in Southeast Asia, and lower-ranking State and Defense department officials will complete the delegation.