WASHINGTON — 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 \o7 he\f7 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 \o7 the \f7 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.