WASHINGTON — The Army colonel who recently resigned as head of the Pentagon's special office for prisoners of war and missing in action told members of Congress on Thursday that there is a "strong possibility" that American POWs from the Vietnam War are still in Southeast Asia, kept there against their will.
Col. Millard A. Peck, himself a Vietnam veteran, conceded that his congressional testimony is only speculation. But he contended that the U.S. government has not made "an honest effort" to uncover the truth.
When Peck resigned his Defense Intelligence Agency post in late March, he stapled to his office door a scathing five-page memorandum containing numerous allegations of conspiracy and possible cover-up. Until Thursday's testimony, however, he had not said whether he believes that U.S. servicemen are still being held in Southeast Asia.
Peck, who has asked the Army for permission to retire, appeared before the House Foreign Affairs subcommittee on Asian and Pacific affairs in full uniform, his chest covered with six rows of decorations.
His public testimony before the panel included little solid evidence to back his assertions. Pressed repeatedly for more details, he cited the need to protect classified information and asked to be allowed to provide them in closed session.
Some lawmakers who attended the closed session later said that they were still unconvinced.
"Col. Peck has not, in either the open or the closed session, presented convincing evidence of some sort of Machiavellian conspiracy to suppress evidence," subcommittee Chairman Stephen J. Solarz (D-N.Y.) told reporters.
Solarz termed it "unfortunate" that Peck has created the "impression that there is some kind of conspiracy here by leading officials of the United States, (because) I don't believe that is the case."
But others who attended the closed session suggested that Peck had made a convincing case that the government has not vigorously pursued every avenue to learn the fates of more than 2,200 Vietnam-era servicemen still listed as missing in action, an effort that President Bush has described as having "highest national priority."
"He has been working on this issue with a kind of enthusiasm which I find lacking in some other people there," said California Rep. David Dreier (R-La Verne). "I happen to think that this man has a lot to say."
Sources who attended the closed session said that Peck was highly critical of a number of members of the POW-MIA Interagency Group, which guides government policy on the issue. The group includes high-level representatives from the Pentagon, State Department and National Security Council, as well as Ann Mills Griffiths, executive director of the National League of Families of American Prisoners and Missing in Southeast Asia.
One person who attended the closed session said Peck alleged that Deputy Defense Secretary Carl W. Ford Jr. urged him to merely "go through the motions, (saying) this is a political issue and (urging) that we make the appearance of progress."
Lt. Cmdr. Ned Lundquist, a Pentagon spokesman, declined to comment on Peck's statements about Ford.
In his public testimony, Peck insisted repeatedly that he had never intended for his resignation memorandum to become public. The memo echoed the arguments that many POW-MIA activists have been making for almost two decades, contentions that have always been denied by the Pentagon.
The document was all the more startling given Peck's own previous public assertions that the Pentagon was doing what it could to uncover evidence about MIAs.
The government declared after the return of 591 POWs in 1973 that it had no evidence any more prisoners were alive in Indochina.
However, Peck speculated Thursday that, when the peace accords were signed, "our opponents at the time realized that they were not going to be content with the gains that they had made at that point," and therefore held back some prisoners as hostages.
"I don't think these (prisoners) are out working in the fields per se, I think they're in closely guarded facilities," Peck said.
Times staff writer Michael Ross contributed to this report.