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Clinton Urged to Halt Steps to Normalize Vietnam Ties : POWs: Activists and veterans groups cite evidence of Hanoi lies, call for freeze on diplomatic process.

April 14, 1993|MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — Veterans groups and POW activists, citing new evidence that Hanoi lied about the number of American prisoners it held during the Vietnam War, urged President Clinton on Tuesday to halt further steps toward normalizing relations with Vietnam until it turns over all of its POW records.

"The so-called road map for normalization of relations with Vietnam should be rolled up, put on a dark shelf and forgotten," American Legion spokesman Richard Christian said.

Referring to the step-by-step program for re-establishing relations that Clinton inherited from the George Bush Administration, Christian and other leaders of veterans groups announced that they are embarking on a national campaign to freeze the process pending answers to new questions raised by the explosive discovery of a secret 1972 document, which indicates that Vietnam held twice as many American prisoners during the war as it has admitted.

Discovered early this year by an American researcher in the Moscow archives of the Soviet Communist Party and turned over to the Clinton Administration last week, the document purports to be a Russian translation of a classified report by a senior North Vietnamese general, who in September, 1972, reported to the North Vietnamese Politburo that Hanoi held 1,205 American prisoners of war.

The number is 837 more than North Vietnam was admitting at the time and at least 600 more than were repatriated during a 1975 prisoner exchange.

Clearly hoping to prevent what could be a major setback in the normalization process, senior Vietnamese officials asserted in Hanoi on Tuesday that the document was a fake and suggested that it had been planted in the Russian archives by unnamed American interests who oppose normal U.S.-Vietnamese relations.

That claim, however, was quickly dismissed by intelligence analysts and congressional investigators who have seen the document and are reviewing it. While the accuracy of its information has yet to be determined, there is "virtually no question but that it is authentic," one intelligence analyst familiar with the document said.

"It is real, but whether it is accurate is another question," added a congressional investigator, who noted that some of the details it contained on the prisoners appeared to be incorrect.

He noted, for instance, that the report, by Gen. Tran Van Quang, deputy chief of staff of Vietnam's army, boasted that among the prisoners were two who had been trained as astronauts and 16 who held the rank of colonel--statistics that do not match U.S. records.

But the intelligence analyst and other sources added that these discrepancies do not by themselves cast doubt on the authenticity of the document. The Vietnamese system of military ranks differs from the American system, the analyst noted, and further confusion could have crept into the document when the prisoners' ranks were translated from English to Vietnamese to Russian and finally back into English again.

The document given to former Ambassador Malcolm Toon, head of the American delegation to a joint U.S.-Russian commission investigating POWs, in Moscow last Thursday was an English translation of the purported Russian version of Quang's 1972 Politburo report.

Pentagon spokesman Bob Hall said Tuesday that the authenticity and implications of the document will be the main subject of discussions with Vietnamese officials by Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., the President's special emissary, when he visits Hanoi later this week.

In the meantime, the furor created by the document appeared certain to reopen old wounds among POW activists, stir up the anguish long felt by POW families and at least temporarily freeze the careful process toward normal relations nurtured first by President Bush and carried on by Clinton.

The Clinton Administration had been in the middle of a high-level policy review with the aim of lifting the trade embargo imposed after the Vietnam War.

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank are meeting at the end of April and may decide to grant new assistance to Vietnam. While normal U.S.-Vietnamese relations have been delayed by the POW issue, American businesses fear they will lose lucrative contracts to European and Asian competitors if the embargo is not lifted before the IMF and World Bank loans are granted.

But at a news conference Tuesday on Capitol Hill, major veterans organizations, POW family groups and lawmakers announced a campaign to keep the embargo in place.

The groups included the American Legion, the National League of Families, the National Alliance of Families and Vietnam Veterans of America.

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