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ON THE TRAIL OF THE MIAs : The Pentagon Has Denied It, and the Senate Is About to Investigate It. Two Former U.S. Intelligence Analysts Say That Clues to the MIA Puzzle May Lie in Moscow.

October 27, 1991|EDWARD TIVNAN | Edward Tivnan is a former Time magazine staff writer. He has contributed to New York magazine, the New York Times Magazine and the Nation

For 30 years, Jerry Mooney carried around in his head some of America's deepest secrets. His wife, Barbara, followed him to posts in Thailand, Okinawa and Ft. Meade, Md., but never knew exactly what her husband did every day. Mooney had pledged never to reveal anything he worked on or saw, and no one he worked with ever expected the quiet, upright, measured and meticulous Mooney to break that pledge. Ever. * Then in the late '80s, Mooney did an extraordinary thing: He gave secret testimony before a Senate committee and appeared on national television alleging that the U.S. government had abandoned hundreds of American prisoners in Southeast Asia after the Vietnam War. He also claimed that U.S. intelligence officials knew not only that Hanoi had withheld American POWs as "bargaining chips" for future negotiations, but also that the North Vietnamese had handed over scores of American airmen to the Soviets for interrogation; 50 or so POWs, he charged, had disappeared into the hands of the Soviets. * For many families of men "missing in action" in Southeast Asia, Mooney's revelations were the next best thing to a real-life Rambo rescuing an American POW from the jungles of Laos or Vietnam. Since the end of the Vietnam War, MIA activists had been waging their own guerrilla war against the government, convinced that the United States was not telling all it knew about the fate of more than 2,000 men who remained unaccounted for. Jerry Mooney, however, was no Rambo. He had spent most of his 20-year career in the Air Force behind a desk, assigned to the National Security Agency, the nation's largest and most secretive intelligence operation. As a code breaker and analyst, he eavesdropped on radio and signals communications around the globe. During the Vietnam War, Mooney culled information about American POWs from literally tons of North Vietnamese communications that America had intercepted with its high-flying, intelligence-gathering planes and ground-based listening posts. * When Mooney went public in 1987, he was the first member of the intelligence community to break his vow of silence and talk about the top-secret POW data that had crossed his desk--and what he had to say amounted to charges of a massive MIA cover-up.

It was startling stuff. But the U.S. government all but ignored Jerry Mooney. The Pentagon quickly and strenuously declared that "the commonly repeated myth that U.S. personnel with specialized technical knowledge were kept in Vietnam or sent to third countries is not supported by any evidence." After all, officials have pointed out, of the 591 POWs who did return from Vietnam, not one remembered ever having been interrogated by Soviet officers. But the government made no effort to discredit Mooney's outstanding NSA service record, and it did not dispute that Mooney had been in a position to see POW-related intelligence data. And though, according to Mooney, representatives from the NSA and Justice Department warned him to "shut your mouth," he was not prosecuted for breaking the law by divulging secrets.

But where were the other Jerry Mooneys? As Mooney says, "I just got a little piece of the rock. People in higher positions saw more." Even those who wanted to believe this NSA whistle-blower wondered why no one else--from among the hundreds of NSA, CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency workers who could have seen similar data--had emerged to support Mooney's claims.

During the next four years, Mooney tried to get his side of the story out to official Washington. He talked to lawyers, to state legislators, to congressmen. He talked to MIA families about what he believed had happened to their loved ones and swore out and filed affidavits on their behalf. At the same time, mud was slung in Mooney's direction. He was "off the wall," intelligence sources told interested members of Congress, "a flake." In the end, Mooney had little effect. Presidents Reagan and Bush may have called accounting for the MIAs "the nation's highest priority," but Mooney's allegations, along with the entire MIA issue, slipped back into history as the country accepted the idea that all that could have been done to account for the nation's MIAs had been done.

Their fate, however, continued to dominate Jerry Mooney's life. During the past few years, he admits, "I've felt pretty alone."

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