WASHINGTON — Members of a Senate committee that recently traveled to Vietnam to look for evidence of missing American servicemen briefed President Bush on Wednesday about their trip and recommended that the United States make a gesture to Hanoi in return for its belated cooperation in that search.
"We suggested the need for a reciprocal measure," said Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), the chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs. "We communicated to him the belief that it's our move."
Kerry and other members of the committee who returned from a 10-day visit to Vietnam and Laos last week spent more than 45 minutes with Bush, recommending different policy options to encourage the Vietnamese to cooperate further in resolving the fates of the 2,226 Americans still listed as missing from the Vietnam War.
The President "listened carefully . . . and asked a lot of questions" but did not commit himself to any further diplomatic or economic moves to reward the Vietnamese for their recent decision to open their wartime archives to U.S. investigators, Kerry said.
Sen. Hank Brown (R-Colo.), another member of the committee, said Bush indicated that he wants to consult both with his advisers and President-elect Bill Clinton before moving toward normal relations with Vietnam. "He wants to coordinate with (Clinton) because steps he takes will obviously affect the incoming Administration," Brown said.
While Administration officials say that Bush agrees Hanoi deserves and needs some diplomatic or economic reward to encourage more cooperation, the specific steps that Washington might take are still the subject of considerable internal debate. Kerry has called for easing the economic embargo imposed on Vietnam 17 years ago, while other senators and MIA family groups advocate a more modest response.
Whatever Bush decides, Administration sources said, they do not expect him to announce it until after the Senate committee issues a final report on its year-long investigation of the POW-MIA issue.
What happens after that, Administration sources said, depends on how much more help Hanoi offers. Some U.S. officials believe that Vietnam is still secretly holding the remains of American MIAs, and they argue that the United States should not move further toward normal relations until the Vietnamese turn these over.
Now halfway through its final week of hearings, the committee took testimony earlier Wednesday on the fraud that taints the POW debate.
The committee has linked several individuals to fabricated photographs and other misleading evidence used to raise funds for bogus efforts to "rescue" POWs. None of these people agreed to appear before the committee, and Kerry said that some of them may now face prosecution for not complying with subpoenas.
However, the senators did sharply question several executives from professional fund-raising firms that they accused of having used deceptive information. One example was a poignant handwritten note supposedly penned by POW activist Jack Bailey from the deck of a boat as it was "tossing and rolling" in the China Sea.
Appealing urgently for donations, the note stated that only hours earlier Bailey had received an "eyewitness account" from Vietnamese refugees at sea of an American serviceman being held captive in Vietnam.
In fact, the letter was conceived and written by Eberle & Associates, a Virginia fund-raising firm hired by Bailey.
Times staff writer Jim Mann contributed to this story.