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Old Soviet Document Stirs Doubts on POWs in Vietnam

September 09, 1993|RICHARD A. SERRANO and MICHAEL ROSS | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

WASHINGTON — For the second time this year, U.S. officials are analyzing a newly released Soviet military intelligence document indicating that a large number of American prisoners of war were left behind and alive near the close of the Vietnam War 20 years ago.

The latest documentation, released by the Pentagon, is in the form of a purported transcript of a decades-old session of the Vietnam Workers' Party at which up to 367 previously unaccounted-for Americans were described as still being held in North Vietnam.

The transcript was obtained this month by Malcolm Toon, co-chairman of the U.S. Russian Joint Commission on POW-MIAs, from his Russian counterparts.

Word of its existence Wednesday prompted some public and private officials to cite it as further evidence that North Vietnam never returned all of the U.S. prisoners captured during the war. As many as 2,200 Americans are listed as missing in action, but those who follow the issue say that fewer than 100 of those are truly unaccounted for.

Sen. Robert C. Smith (R.-N.H.), a member of the joint commission, described the new document as "dramatic and deeply troubling."

Ann Mills Griffiths, excecutive director of the National League of Families, said "this document lends credence" to a growing body of evidence that North Vietnam held many more POWs than it admitted.

But Secretary of Defense Les Aspin cautioned that Pentagon officials are just beginning to study the transcript. He said that, while the material "may be an authentic document in that it came from the right people at the right time," its accuracy remains to be proven.

And Russia's minister of defense, Gen. Pavel S. Grachev, visiting Washington on Wednesday to sign new military training accords with the United States, declined to discuss the matter.

The discovery follows the release in April of another top-secret report in the Soviet military intelligence files, this one suggesting that North Vietnam was holding as many as 1,205 American prisoners in 11 North Vietnam prison camps in the spring of 1973.

That document reportedly was discovered by a Harvard University researcher in the archives of the Soviet Communist Party in Moscow.

The North Vietnamese acknowledged holding only 368 POWs at that time. A few months later, as the war ended, 591 American prisoners were repatriated.

The April document was also heralded as a "smoking gun" showing that the North Vietnamese have been less than truthful about the status of American prisoners of war.

But Hanoi officials vigorously denied the authenticity of that document. Retired Gen. John W. Vessey Jr., the President's emissary on prisoner of war issues, later visited Hanoi, discussed the matter with Vietnamese officials and said the document was inaccurate.

The Defense Intelligence Agency is still examining both documents, the Pentagon said Wednesday.

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