Let's Sell The Bones : The Marketing of America's

Missing In Action

by Sedgwick Tourison

Today, in 1996, some Americans believe deep down in their hearts that American servicemen are being held captive by the Communist regimes in Southeast Asia. However, most Americans seem to have come to accept that if any American servicemen are still in Southeast Asia, they must be there of their own free will.

The Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton administrations each left their individual imprint on the search for our wartime unaccounted-for comrades in arms, an effort that often led a skeptical American public to ask pointed questions that evidenced the level of continuing lack of confidence in Washington officialdom:

-Who was still alive in captivity after the end of Operation Homecoming in April 1973 and what happened to all the missing servicemen?

-Did one or more administrations deliberately abandon its servicemen to death in a Communist prison and who was responsible?

-How can this nation normalize relations with a Communist country such as Viet Nam that has failed consistently to provide adequate answers about the fate of America's unaccounted-for?

These questions, I might add, are the more printable questions raised by critics of Washington's seemingly unproductive efforts that cost millions of dollars per year and with little to show for the expense and effort but almost unrecognizable bone fragments, most of which can not be correlated to a specific missing American.

Why does this search go on? The answer is simply that the POW/MIA issue has become part of our national psyche. How it became so ingrained in our national psyche in ways not experienced in the aftermath of other wars is what I want to share with you today.

In July 1991 I appeared on CNN's Newsmaker Sunday. With me at CNN's Washington studio was former prisoner of war U.S. Navy Captain Eugene "Red" McDaniel while the daughter of a missing airman participated through a CNN link from California. The reason for the program was national interest in a photograph of three Caucasians that Capt. McDaniel and others argued was compelling evidence that Americans were still alive in captivity. The woman on the CNN link from California believed that one of the three men in the photograph was her long missing father. To compound the pain, several families each claimed one of the same men in the photograph as their missing loved one.

I told the daughter quite matter of factly that I could not sit there and tell her that her father was dead; I did not have the right to do that. It was equally true that I saw no evidence that he was alive. We met in 1992 at the annual convention of the National League of POW/MIA Families. The daughter asked me to keep an open mind. I responded that the need for an open mind went both ways.

Subsequent to our meeting, certain facts emerged about the photograph depicting three Caucasians. It was a photograph that had captured the news media's attention for most of 1991 and well into 1992. The facts that emerged, and received scant media notice, revealed that the photograph was apparently crafted, and altered, from a nearly 60 year old Soviet magazine depicting three Russian bakers. By the fall of 1992, the photograph, now dubbed by some "the three amigos," was not newsworthy.

The families of those missing airmen, even if they accepted that the photograph was a fraud, still pressed for answers. For some, the answers have not yet arrived and the pain of not knowing the precise fate of their unaccounted-for loved ones is as real today as it was nearly 30 years ago when the airmen disappeared in separate incidents.

Here, today, I will not attempt to argue for, or against, the position that every missing serviceman and civilian is dead. I will not argue for, or against, the position that Americans remain in captivity in Southeast Asia, or in some other corner of the world. Everyone who has dealt with the POW/MIA issue, and I have dealt with it from one perspective or another for 35 years, comes to recognize that views about continued life are often based on an underlying faith and belief that life continues. It is a belief that is very personal and can not be proved or disproved, save for the return alive of the missing serviceman or the recovery of sufficient human remains to satisfy the family that the individual is indeed deceased. In all too many cases, there are compelling reasons to believe that neither condition will be met.

Instead of addressing the seemingly unanswerable, I want to place before you two conclusions based on some facts, some evidence, some thoughts, and even some opinion, about the events of the 1980s that help explain why the POW/MIA issue was revitalized:

First, officials at the National Security Council, the National League of POW/MIA Families, and even the Defense Intelligence Agency, deliberately manipulated POW/MIA intelligence and public awareness. The effect of this manipulation was that Americans came to believe POW/MIA disinformation more than the oftentimes elusive truth.

Second, officials of the Vietnamese and Lao intelligence and security services, both military and nonmilitary, are the sources of most POW/MIA disinformation that reached Washington throughout the 1980s. The affect of their efforts was to create a mirage that reflected what the Southeast Asian Communist governments wanted Americans to believe.

In order to appreciate the events that led to this environment, I must turn back the clock 15 years, to the spring of 1981. It was at that time that a series of near simultaneous events began a process that changed dramatically American public perception about the fate of Americans who were unaccounted-for. The change I refer to was a rapid swing from a position that everyone who was unaccounted-for from the Viet Nam War was dead, to an opposite view that some Americans remained alive and in captivity in one or more of the three countries of Viet Nam, Laos and Cambodia.

First, a series of highly sensational stories in Soldier of Fortune magazine described efforts to rescue Americans reportedly alive and held captive inside Communist prisons within Laos. These articles, and stories through other media outlets, hammered the notion that Americans remained alive and in captivity. The effect of all this information was to plant and spread the seed of doubt about the administration's claim that there was no evidence that wartime unaccounted-for Americans remained alive in Southeast Asia. The seeds of doubt germinated and were broadcast around the world. An increasing percentage of Americans came to believe that where there was smoke there was fire, that the sheer volume of stories surfacing in the news media, even if some were not true, just had to mean that someone had to be alive, somewhere. America's wartime unaccounted-for became the stuff of movies, books and telemarketing to raise funds ostensibly to support private POW recovery raids.

Next, the executive director of the National League of POW/MIA Families secured a position on the administration's newly formed POW/MIA policy formulation body, the Inter-Agency Group. This offered the National League a vantage point from which to influence national POW/MIA policy formulation. This also permitted a private nonprofit body with its own private agenda, an organization that had been critical of, and excluded from, the previous administration, to gain direct and frequent access to working level analysts at the Defense Intelligence Agency. This situation permitted the National League to have a direct influence on intelligence collection and indirectly, intelligence analysis, as it related to national POW/MIA intelligence.

With a National Security Council staff officer demanding cooperation with the League and the Defense Intelligence Agency unwilling to challenge external meddling, the focus of national POW/MIA intelligence efforts was almost immediately transformed into a mechanism that supported the administration's domestic political agenda at the expense of the need for accurate intelligence. It also transformed DIA's intelligence data base into an archive of hostile-originated information our national policy formulators were unwilling to accept and appreciate for what it was, disinformation.

Bowing to external political pressure, the Defense Department changed its operative assumption from a position that all unaccounted-for Americans were dead to a position that someone, no one knew whom, might be alive somewhere, but no one knew where.

At the same time, an inactive POW/MIA private non-profit corporation in southern California was surreptitiously reactivated at the private urging of the National Security Council staff member responsible for the POW/MIA effort and two executives of the National League of Families. The private group agreed to serve as a conduit for funds that were to support private remains recovery efforts. Through this channel, administration political supporters agreed to contribute private funds that would pay for skeletal remains of Americans recovered by self-proclaimed anti-Communist resistance forces ostensibly operating inside the Lao People's Democratic Republic. A subsequent investigation revealed that the funds went primarily to support anti-Communist resistance groups in Thailand whose activities had little to nothing to do with the POW/MIA issue. There was internal pressure to avoid trying to understand the dynamics of the flow of information about the purported recovery of remains. Thus, it was not until 1987 that the Defense Intelligence Agency was able to develop fairly hard evidence that the money for bones effort was essentially the byproduct of a hostile intelligence disinformation effort aimed at subverting the administration's POW/MIA strategy, not enhancing it. As these events were taking place, reports about the reported recovery in Viet Nam and Laos of skeletal remains of missing Americans, usually associated with the rubbing of a dog tag supposedly recovered with the remains, emerged from the shadows of insignificant intelligence reporting and experienced in 1981 a 20-fold meteoric rise in the number of reports reaching Washington. This occurred as other categories of raw intelligence reports, particularly live sighting reports, declined in volume and currency. As DIA would later confirm, the reports DIA soon termed "dog tag reports" had, by 1981, accounted for over half the raw POW/MIA information reaching Washington.

Approximately 10 percent of the "dog tag" reports claimed the recovery of skeletal remains of Americans who were still unaccounted-for; the remainder related to Americans who had served in Southeast Asia and had returned alive. Nevertheless, the "dog tag reports" both generated tremendous anxiety among next of kin and helped support the charges of POW/MIA activists who argued the administration was not doing enough to address the POW/MIA issue. Some private groups urged, and claimed they were conducting, unconventional warfare to recover live American POWs. As time went on, activists demanded the National League of Families share power and access to administration officials and classified documents that were accessed by the executive director of the National League of Families who, it was alleged, failed to share her knowledge with the POW/MIA families.

By 1982, the American public was being deluged with media reports charging the Defense Intelligence Agency had hard evidence of hundreds of live sightings of "POWs". Activists pointed to the numbers of classified intelligence reports cited in DIA's periodic reports to the Congress as evidence of the sheer volume of live sighting reports of "POWs" that the administration was trying to cover up. DIA did not rebut such criticism, even when it was inaccurate, deliberately distorted or outright false. By 1984, a very small number of vocal Republican members of Congress became the most publicly critical of DIA and the administration.

It is with this background that I want to turn to the first of my two conclusions. The first conclusion is that officials at the National Security Council, the National League of POW/MIA Families, and even officials of the Defense Intelligence Agency, deliberately manipulated POW/MIA intelligence and public awareness to the point that Americans came to believe that Communist POW/MIA disinformation was both believable and more credible than reality.

Just what were the resources that Washington applied fifteen years ago in what the administration termed this nations "number one national priority?" In Asia, there were no more than three language qualified interviewers. In Washington, as of December 1983, the Defense Intelligence Agency employed no more than six full time intelligence analysts, each analyst responsible for over 150 unresolved cases and only three of them qualified in the languages of Southeast Asia. By the fall of 1988, the agency had approximately 14 permanent analysts, each responsible for well over the same approximate number of cases, half of them language qualified. Standing intelligence priorities aside, the cases that were handled first were those that received the attention of the White House. The overwhelming majority of these cases were bogus.

Let me cite several examples.

Beginning in 1980, a Eurasian who went by the name of Johny King surfaced in South Viet Nam. To those who would listen, he claimed he was an American pilot shot down over North Viet Nam, that he was not repatriated with other POWs in 1973 and that he had now been released from prison to live in Viet Nam of his own free will.

Johny King first appeared on the coast near Vung Tau in 1979, then went to Ho Chi Minh City and eventually reached a semipermanent home in the Mekong Delta. Many Vietnamese saw him and spoke with him as he carried his guitar from place to place. To give credence to his claims, Johny even provided the name and address of his parents. Of course, there was no missing American named Johny King, his parents were bogus, and the address did not exist.

To make a long story short, Johny King was a member of a hilltribe ethnic minority who had come to the attention of a very influential American who headed an internationally-recognized private organization. His group received strong administration backing, including financial support for his group's private humanitarian Christian endeavors. As scores of reports flooded into DIA, it became increasingly apparent that the private citizen had been targeted by Viet Nam to act as a conduit for disinformation.

The private citizen to whom I refer needed merely to ask that someone at the National Security Council staff look into a new hearsay report about Johny King and everything in DIA's POW/MIA office almost came to a grinding halt. Within several years, reports about Johny King filled an entire safe drawer. There were compelling reasons to believe that Johny King was not a POW and the entire affair was either concocted or fed by Viet Nam's state security professionals.

Approximately nine years after the stories first surfaced, Johny King conveniently left Viet Nam as a boat escapee, admitting after he arrived safely in an Asian refugee camp that he was not an American POW. Who had encouraged him to concoct the lies? DIA POW/MIA management avoided trying to write a bottom line to the story.

In another case, an American woman of Vietnamese origin working with the National League of Families arranged access to a number of Vietnamese refugees who offered report after report of live American prisoners in Viet Nam and Laos. Once again, DIA's POW/MIA office was nearly immobilized by the continued influx of her associates with sensational reports.

The League benefitted from its arrangement with their new found supporter because their supporter arranged for a newspaper publisher friend to publish for the League free advertisements in his magazine asking for POW/MIA information, a magazine devoted primarily to the publisher's strident publicity for anti- Communist activities against Viet Nam's government. By 1984 the woman had introduced a core group of refugees whose reports nearly immobilized DIA's intelligence efforts by diverting scant intelligence resources into time-consuming and totally unproductive avenues of inquiry.

One DIA senior POW/MIA analyst had reason to suspect that the stories were crafted either by Viet Nam's Interior Ministry or by a group of Vietnamese claiming to represent a self-claimed anti- Communist resistance group. The woman's efforts eventually led to attacks against the analyst when he began to sound the alarm that the woman's sources were engaged in disinformation. The analyst was attacked by activists, isolated by DIA's own POW/MIA senior management, his work was ignored or discredited, and by 1987 he had been driven out of the DIA's POW/MIA office.

In December 1984, Viet Nam's public trial of a number of members of the self-styled resistance group, allied with the League's former supporter and newspaper publisher friend, confirmed that the organization had been penetrated years earlier by Viet Nam's Interior Ministry. This raised the likelihood that the so-called resistance group was controlled by, or at a minimum influenced by, Viet Nam's foreign intelligence service. In the fall of 1992, DIA reported to the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs that the woman and her newspaper publisher colleague in California were apparently responsible for more demonstrably fabricated reports than any other reporting individuals.

As DIA developed indirect evidence of hostile manipulation of the POW/MIA issue, critics responded with one recurring question: If there were no live POWs, what did Viet Nam and Laos stand to gain by disseminating false information?

In the mid-1980s, I drafted a report of an interview of a South Vietnamese former lieutenant colonel, one of many of our wartime allies who offered significant details about Viet Nam's prison system. His remarks included his views on why Viet Nam might be behind such disinformation. The deputy director of DIA's POW/MIA office struck the information from my report, citing the NSC staff officer as insisting that no such speculation be contained in DIA's reports. That embargo had been in place prior to my joining DIA's Special Office for POW/MIA Affairs in December 1983 and continued through the end of my service in DIA on September 15, 1988.

As live sightings received in 1984 dwindled to a measurably predictable handful, overzealous information collectors began forwarding reports about American looking individuals wandering about Viet Nam, not imprisoned, and with little to no evidence that they might be an American. Although this information added to DIA's POW/MIA data base, it is a fair judgement that analyzing this category of information occupied 20 percent of analyst time and available manpower. When grouped with chasing ghosts, even having to analyze one report about American POWs in a flying saucer, DIA stopped producing POW/MIA intelligence and became a convenient lighting rod for administration critics, further denigrating the agency's POW/MIA intelligence responsibilities.

In point of fact, the much ballyhooed live sightings that some portrayed as sightings of American POWs almost never related to an American prisoner. Nearly all related to one of the following: sightings of an American collaborator, Robert Garwood; American civilians stranded in Viet Nam on or after April 30, 1975; American boaters arrested during or after 1977 for violating Viet Nam's territorial boundaries, of whom several were drug dealers; Europeans; Amerasians; Eurasians; and several Asians who did not seem to look Asian and therefore had to be American.

For example, a hapless Chinese named Hsu Hsu Bin was imprisoned for perhaps two years in one of southern Viet Nam's coastal prisons. He was very fair skinned and, based solely on the lightness of his skin, some Vietnamese at or near the prison thought that Hsu Hsu Bin could be an American. It took nearly five years of patient investigation to confirm his identity. Hsu Hsu Bin was not an American and never claimed to be an American. But, cases similar to that of Hsu Hsu Bin were an important percentage of POW/MIA reports reaching DIA, each of which had to be analyzed and the individual identified by name. Reports in this vein were correlated to Eurasian pedicab drivers in Ho Chi Minh, Eurasian bus and logging truck drivers in Dong Nai Province, Amerasians at labor camps in Song Be Province, Afroasian residents of northern Viet Nam, just to mention a few.

The reason for such reports having led to confusion and misrepresentation by those attacking the administration can be traced to the way in which DIA defined the reports it received. For example, DIA categorized firsthand or hearsay sighting reports as sightings of Americans. This category included wartime sightings, often reports about bonafide accounted-for prisoners, and postwar sightings, routinely individuals who were not Americans unaccounted-for at the end of the war. A small number of activists deliberately misrepresented the context of these reports, claiming the postwar sightings were of unaccounted- for POWs. DIA was too fearful to change this internal reports categorization, lest its action be portrayed in the press and on Capitol Hill as a cover-up.

DIA largely remained silent throughout most of the 1980s as criticism mounted and political critics gained media attention with each new story. Thus, DIA's silence and internal politicking were partially responsible for many Americans concluding that where there was smoke, there had to be fire.

My second conclusion was that officials of the Vietnamese and Lao intelligence and security services, both military and nonmilitary, were responsible for most POW/MIA information that reached Washington throughout the 1980s. This conclusion is based on the fact that between 1982 and 1987, "dog tag reports" totalled nearly 70 percent of all raw POW/MIA information reaching Washington. Allied with these "dog tag reports" were spinoff stories about a blind American living in the South Vietnamese Central Highlands, Americans serving with one or more so-called antiCommunist resistance groups in Viet Nam, and groups of so-called deserters in a colony at one location or another. By 1987, some citizens in Viet Nam claimed having custody of over 100 sets of skeletal remains of unaccounted-for servicemen. In one gruesome incident, a member of Congress from California received small plastic bags of powdery material said to have been ground bone fragments. Anecdotal evidence indicated a sizeable number of citizens of Viet Nam were purchasing such bone fragments in the mistaken belief that their chances for emigration would be helped if they recovered and turned over the remains of unaccounted-for Americans. Other anecdotal evidence suggested that overseas Vietnamese were being pressured by relatives in Viet Nam to provide the money to purchase these bone fragments. The principal targets of this extortion were Vietnamese applying to depart Viet Nam through the Orderly Departure Program.

News media accounts of the dog tag phenomenon and alleged market in skeletal remains, soon led many private citizens to become involved in bartering for human remains to the point that the selling of bones became both an epidemic and no longer under the tight control of the central governments.

An unexpected telephone call to the Defense Intelligence Agency in December 1986 led to a Vietnamese couple who had just immigrated from Vietnam under the ODP program. The couple claimed to have been involved with individuals ostensibly associated with Viet Nam's Interior Ministry office for southern Viet Nam, an office called MOI B, located in Ho Chi Minh City. One of MOI B's endeavors, they claimed, was manipulating ODP beneficiaries to be receptive to receiving and transmitting dog tag information. In the early spring of 1987, the couple's information was collated with other information at DIA and analysts were able to link 15 percent of the over 1,000 dog tag reports from across the length of South Viet Nam to a common point of origin. DIA then suspended any further investigation into the phenomenon because of a lack of resources.

DIA's intelligence efforts challenged the National Security Council and National League of Families direct support for a position put forth by Viet Nam's Minister of Foreign Affairs, Nguyen Co Thach. Foreign Minister Thach argued that Viet Nam was unable to account for many missing Americans because their skeletal remains were being salvaged by southern Vietnamese outside Viet Nam's central government control. Viet Nam had been dragging its feet in responding to U.S. efforts to recover the remains of Americans who were believed to be deceased and Thach's argument was a tactical position that permitted Viet Nam to continue this foot dragging.

The couple interviewed beginning in 1987, together with other refugees, provided detailed and highly credible information that the dog tag reporting phenomenon was part of a multilevel disinformation effort. DIA's persuasive evidence failed to sway the NSC staff officer who kept insisting that the dog tag reports were merely an effort by southern Vietnamese civilians who were able to thwart Vietnamese efforts to cooperate.

With an understanding about the mechanics of the dog tag reporting, other refugees described similar POW/MIA disinformation conducted by the Lao state security apparatus that fed bogus POW/MIA information to targeted antigovernment resistance groups in Thailand. The Lao objective was to induce such groups to recruit followers to be sent across the Mekong River into Laos where they would walk into an ambush and be captured or killed. Intelligence analysts later concluded this same practice had been employed by Viet Nam. It was evident that both Laos and Viet Nam had been responsible for helping to create many antigovernment dissident groups through "sting" operations. These operations manufactured mythical threats to the State and Communist party that the state security professionals easily neutralized, using the threats that the Interior Ministry forces had created to justify the need for heightened vigilance against external antigovernment forces that Viet Nam and Lao state security professionals had themselves created.

The combination of these two factors, meddling and foreign disinformation, were key factors that inhibited Washington's ability to come to grips with the Southeast Asian dynamics of the POW/MIA issue. Even when DIA's inspector general staff noted the adverse impact of the meddling, DIA's officials refused to act and correct the adverse impact on POW/MIA intelligence. Anecdotal evidence suggests the flood of disinformation continues to this very day. The disinformation and external meddling never rated a public hearing by the Senate Select Committee.

At the first public hearing conducted by the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, the Select Committee Chair, Senator John Kerry, voiced his opinion that when the Select Committee's work was completed, Americans would have to decide for themselves if Americans remained alive in captivity in Southeast Asia.

In the fall of 1992, I completed for Senator John Kerry an extensive analysis of hundreds of cases of unaccounted for Americans, missing servicemen who offered the best potential for survival, cases that Senator Kerry wanted to present to Viet Nam and press for an accounting. My inquiry was not limited to the government's priority cases. Instead, I was asked to take my own look. In the analysis I prepared for Senator Kerry, I noted that those cases that appeared to represent the greatest possibility for life in terms of our knowledge in 1973, represented individuals who we now have a strong basis for believing had died long before 1973. Senator Kerry returned from his trip to Viet Nam in the fall of 1992. I was to meet with him and turn in my completed study, placing at the top those cases that offered the best of the best possibilities for survival. Soon after his return the senator called me to meet with him.

"Wait a minute, Wick," he began. "I want to see the best cases, the very best ones." Clearly, he was agitated.

"That's what you're looking at, Senator," I replied.

"But these guys are all dead! You don't understand, Wick, I want to see the ones about the guys that might be still alive."

"Senator, these are the best."

Senator John Kerry just sat there and stared at the cases I had provided, finally shaking his head.

"Thank you," he said. Our meeting was over.

As Senator Kerry noted at that first public hearing, each American may have to decide the truth or fiction of the notion that some Americans may still be alive. Although the hew and cry of live POWs has largely disappeared from the media, there are those who still hold fast to the belief that at least one prisoner remains alive in captivity, somewhere.

At the start of 1992, several foreign service officers from the Department of State visited with the staff of the Senate Select Committee. The purpose of their visit was, in part, to see what they could do to help answer any questions. My own question was roughly as follows:

United States normalization policy vis-a-vis Viet Nam is based on a road map designed by Washington. Most of that road map has appeared in the press. My question is quite simple:

What is Viet Nam's road map?

My question was not answered.

The POW/MIA issue has always been a part of United States strategy in dealing with Viet Nam, just as the POW/MIA issue has always been part of Viet Nam's strategy in dealing with the United States in the post-war era. However, the adoption in the 1980s by the National Security Council staff of the notion that the POW/MIA issue was an issue to be negotiated separately from other foreign policy issues, was bad strategy and bad policy. This flaw permitted the exploitation of the grief of the families of our unaccounted-for servicemen, thus making a mockery of the claim by both sides that resolving the fate of the unaccounted- for was truly a humanitarian endeavor.

Having lost the moral high ground, Washington slumped into a defensive mode through most of the decade of the 1980s, unable to counter effectively the disinformation crafted by Southeast Asian Communist intelligence services on the one hand, and on the other, the bone merchants and exploiters who sought to profit from the selling of human remains.

If there was a fundamental failure on the U.S. side, it was in failing to address adequately Viet Nam's plans and intentions. From that blindness, we adopted a flawed POW/MIA policy at the start of the 1980s that replicated the fundamental ignorance that led to the Viet Nam War of two decades earlier.

There simply must be a better way to do things. I challenge those of you who are here today to find that way.

Thank you.

(c) Sedgwick Tourison, 1996, Crofton, MD. This document may not be reproduced in whole or in part with the author's written permission.

Copyright for this paper is held by the author(s) unless stated otherwise. Paper should not be reproduced or posted without permission of author(s).

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