PQC: Folks, Please read these article slowly and read them entirely!
Our American Pravda
In mid-March, the Wall Street Journal carried a long discussion of the origins of the Bretton Woods system, the international financial framework that governed the Western world for decades after World War II. A photo showed the two individuals who negotiated that agreement. Britain was represented by John Maynard Keynes, a towering economic figure of that era. America’s representative was Harry Dexter White, assistant secretary of the Treasury and long a central architect of American economic policy, given that his nominal superior, Secretary Henry Morgenthau Jr., was a gentleman farmer with no background in finance. White was also a Communist agent.
Such a situation was hardly unique in American government during the 1930s and 1940s. For example, when a dying Franklin Roosevelt negotiated the outlines of postwar Europe with Joseph Stalin at the 1945 Yalta summit, one of his important advisors was Alger Hiss, a State Department official whose primary loyalty was to the Soviet side. Over the last 20 years, John Earl Haynes, Harvey Klehr, and other scholars have conclusively established that many dozens or even hundreds of Soviet agents once honeycombed the key policy staffs and nuclear research facilities of our federal government, constituting a total presence perhaps approaching the scale suggested by Sen. Joseph McCarthy, whose often unsubstantiated charges tended to damage the credibility of his position.
The Cold War ended over two decades ago and Communism has been relegated to merely an unpleasant chapter in the history books, so today these facts are hardly much disputed. For example, liberal Washington Post blogger Ezra Klein matter-of-factly referred to White as a “Soviet spy” in the title of his column on our postwar financial system. But during the actual period when America’s government was heavily influenced by Communist agents, such accusations were widely denounced as “Red-baiting” or ridiculed as right-wing conspiracy paranoia by many of our most influential journalists and publications. In 1982 liberal icon Susan Sontag ruefully acknowledged that for decades the subscribers to the lowbrow Readers Digest had received a more realistic view of the world than those who drew their knowledge from the elite liberal publications favored by her fellow intellectuals. I myself came of age near the end of the Cold War and always vaguely assumed that such lurid tales of espionage were wildly exaggerated. I was wrong.
The notion of the American government being infiltrated and substantially controlled by agents of a foreign power has been the stuff of endless Hollywood movies and television shows, but for various reasons such popular channels have never been employed to bring the true-life historical example to wide attention. I doubt if even one American in a hundred today is familiar with the name “Harry Dexter White” or dozens of similar agents.
The realization that the world is often quite different from what is presented in our leading newspapers and magazines is not an easy conclusion for most educated Americans to accept, or at least that was true in my own case. For decades, I have closely read the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and one or two other major newspapers every morning, supplemented by a wide variety of weekly or monthly opinion magazines. Their biases in certain areas had always been apparent to me. But I felt confident that by comparing and contrasting the claims of these different publications and applying some common sense, I could obtain a reasonably accurate version of reality. I was mistaken.
Aside from the evidence of our own senses, almost everything we know about the past or the news of today comes from bits of ink on paper or colored pixels on a screen, and fortunately over the last decade or two the growth of the Internet has vastly widened the range of information available to us in that latter category. Even if the overwhelming majority of the unorthodox claims provided by such non-traditional web-based sources is incorrect, at least there now exists the possibility of extracting vital nuggets of truth from vast mountains of falsehood. Certainly the events of the past dozen years have forced me to completely recalibrate my own reality-detection apparatus.
Thoughtful individuals of all backgrounds have undergone a similar crisis of confidence during this same period. Just a few months after 9/11 New York Times columnist Paul Krugman argued that the sudden financial collapse of the Enron Corporation represented a greater shock to the American system than the terrorist attacks themselves, and although he was widely denounced for making such an “unpatriotic” claim, I believe his case was strong. Although the name “Enron” has largely vanished from our memory, for years it had ranked as one of America’s most successful and admired companies, glowingly profiled on the covers of our leading business magazines, and drawing luminaries such as Krugman himself to its advisory board; Enron Chairman Kenneth Lay had been a top contender for Treasury secretary in President George W. Bush’s administration. Then in the blink of an eye, the entire company was revealed to be an accounting fraud from top to bottom, collapsing into a $63 billion bankruptcy, the largest in American history. Other companies of comparable or even greater size such as WorldCom, Tyco, Adelphia, and Global Crossing soon vanished for similar reasons.
Part of Krugman’s argument was that while the terrorist attacks had been of an entirely unprecedented nature and scale, our entire system of financial regulation, accounting, and business journalism was designed to prevent exactly the sort of frauds that brought down those huge companies. When a system fails so dramatically at its core mission, we must wonder which of our other assumptions are incorrect.
Just a few years later, we saw an even more sweeping near-collapse of our entire financial system, with giant institutions such as Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Wachovia, and AIG falling into bankruptcy, and all our remaining major banks surviving only due to the trillions of dollars in government bailouts and loan guarantees they received. Once again, all our media and regulatory organs had failed to anticipate this disaster.
Or take the remarkable case of Bernie Madoff. His colossal investment swindle had been growing unchecked for over three decades under the very noses of our leading financial journalists and regulators in New York City, ultimately reaching the sum of $65 billion in mostly fictional assets. His claimed returns had been implausibly steady and consistent year after year, market crashes or not. None of his supposed trading actually occurred. His only auditing was by a tiny storefront firm. Angry competitors had spent years warning the SEC and journalists that his alleged investment strategy was mathematically impossible and that he was obviously running a Ponzi scheme. Yet despite all these indicators, officials did nothing and refused to close down such a transparent swindle, while the media almost entirely failed to report these suspicions.
In many respects, the non-detection of these business frauds is far more alarming than failure to uncover governmental malfeasance. Politics is a partisan team sport, and it is easy to imagine Democrats or Republicans closing ranks and protecting their own, despite damage to society. Furthermore, success or failure in public policies is often ambiguous and subject to propagandistic spin. But investors in a fraudulent company lose their money and therefore have an enormous incentive to detect those risks, with the same being true for business journalists. If the media cannot be trusted to catch and report simple financial misconduct, its reliability on more politically charged matters will surely be lower.
The circumstances surrounding our Iraq War demonstrate this, certainly ranking it among the strangest military conflicts of modern times. The 2001 attacks in America were quickly ascribed to the radical Islamists of al-Qaeda, whose bitterest enemy in the Middle East had always been Saddam Hussein’s secular Baathist regime in Iraq. Yet through misleading public statements, false press leaks, and even forged evidence such as the “yellowcake” documents, the Bush administration and its neoconservative allies utilized the compliant American media to persuade our citizens that Iraq’s nonexistent WMDs posed a deadly national threat and required elimination by war and invasion. Indeed, for several years national polls showed that a large majority of conservatives and Republicans actually believed that Saddam was the mastermind behind 9/11 and the Iraq War was being fought as retribution. Consider how bizarre the history of the 1940s would seem if America had attacked China in retaliation for Pearl Harbor.
True facts were easily available to anyone paying attention in the years after 2001, but most Americans do not bother and simply draw their understanding of the world from what they are told by the major media, which overwhelmingly—almost uniformly—backed the case for war with Iraq; the talking heads on TV created our reality. Prominent journalists across the liberal and conservative spectrum eagerly published the most ridiculous lies and distortions passed on to them by anonymous sources, and stampeded Congress down the path to war.
The result was what my late friend Lt. Gen. Bill Odom rightly called the “greatest strategic disaster in United States history.” American forces suffered tens of thousands of needless deaths and injuries, while our country took a huge step toward national bankruptcy. Economics Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz and others have estimated that with interest the total long-term cost of our two recent wars may reach as high as $5 or $6 trillion, or as much as $50,000 per American household, mostly still unpaid. Meanwhile, economist Edward Wolff has calculated that the Great Recession and its aftermath cut the personal net worth of the median American household to $57,000 in 2010 from a figure nearly twice as high three years earlier. Comparing these assets and liabilities, we see that the American middle class now hovers on the brink of insolvency, with the cost of our foreign wars being a leading cause.
But no one involved in the debacle ultimately suffered any serious consequences, and most of the same prominent politicians and highly paid media figures who were responsible remain just as prominent and highly paid today. For most Americans, reality is whatever our media organs tell us, and since these have largely ignored the facts and adverse consequences of our wars in recent years, the American people have similarly forgotten. Recent polls show that only half the public today believes that the Iraq War was a mistake.
Author James Bovard has described our society as an “attention deficit democracy,” and the speed with which important events are forgotten once the media loses interest might surprise George Orwell.
Consider the story of Vioxx, a highly lucrative anti-pain medication marketed by Merck to the elderly as a substitute for simple aspirin. After years of very profitable Vioxx sales, an FDA researcher published a study demonstrating that the drug greatly increased the risk of fatal strokes and heart attacks and had probably already caused tens of thousands of premature American deaths. Vioxx was immediately pulled from the market, but Merck eventually settled the resulting lawsuits for relatively small penalties, despite direct evidence the company had long been aware of the drug’s deadly nature. Our national media, which had earned hundreds of millions of dollars in advertising revenue from Vioxx marketing, provided no sustained coverage and the scandal was soon forgotten. Furthermore, the press never investigated the dramatic upward and downward shifts in the mortality rates of elderly Americans that so closely tracked the introduction and recall of Vioxx; as I pointed out in a 2012 article, these indicated that the likely death toll had actually been several times greater than the FDA estimate. Vast numbers Americans died, no one was punished, and almost everyone has now forgotten.
Or take the strange case of Bernard Kerik, New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s police commissioner during 9/11, later nominated by President Bush to be America’s first director of national intelligence, a newly established position intended to oversee all of our various national-security and intelligence agencies. His appointment seemed likely to sail through the Republican-controlled Senate until derailed by accusations he had employed an undocumented nanny. With his political rise having been blocked, the national media suddenly revealed his long history of association with organized-crime figures, an indictment quickly followed, and he is currently still serving his federal prison sentence for conspiracy and fraud. So America came within a hairbreadth of placing its entire national-security apparatus under the authority of a high-school dropout connected with organized crime, and today almost no Americans seem aware of that fact.
Through most of the 20th century, America led something of a charmed life, at least when compared with the disasters endured by almost every other major country. We became the richest and most powerful nation on earth, partly due to our own achievements and partly due to the mistakes of others. The public interpreted these decades of American power and prosperity as validation of our system of government and national leadership, and the technological effectiveness of our domestic propaganda machinery—our own American Pravda—has heightened this effect. Furthermore, most ordinary Americans are reasonably honest and law-abiding and project that same behavior onto others, including our media and political elites. This differs from the total cynicism found in most other countries around the world.
Credibility is a capital asset, which may take years to accumulate but can be squandered in an instant; and the events of the last dozen years should have bankrupted any faith we have in our government or media. Once we acknowledge this, we should begin to accept the possible reality of important, well-documented events even if they are not announced on the front pages of our major newspapers. When several huge scandals have erupted into the headlines after years or decades of total media silence, we must wonder what other massive stories may currently be ignored by our media elites. I think I can provide a few possibilities.
Consider the almost forgotten anthrax mailing attacks in the weeks after 9/11, which terrified our dominant East Coast elites and spurred passage of the unprecedented Patriot Act, thereby eliminating many traditional civil-libertarian protections. Every morning during that period the New York Times and other leading newspapers carried articles describing the mysterious nature of the deadly attacks and the complete bafflement of the FBI investigators. But evenings on the Internet I would read stories by perfectly respectable journalists such as Salon’s Laura Rozen or the staff of the Hartford Courant providing a wealth of additional detail and pointing to a likely suspect and motive.
Although the letters carrying the anthrax were purportedly written by an Arab terrorist, the FBI quickly determined that the language and style indicated a non-Arab author, while tests pointed to the bioweapons research facility at Ft. Detrick, Md., as the probable source of the material. But just prior to the arrival of those deadly mailings, military police at Quantico, Va., had also received an anonymous letter warning that a former Ft. Detrick employee, Egyptian-born Dr. Ayaad Assaad, might be planning to launch a national campaign of bioterrorism. Investigators quickly cleared Dr. Assaad, but the very detailed nature of the accusations revealed inside knowledge of his employment history and the Ft. Detrick facilities. Given the near-simultaneous posting of anthrax envelopes and false bioterrorism accusations, the mailings almost certainly came from the same source, and solving the latter case would be the easiest means of catching the anthrax killer.
Who would have attempted to frame Dr. Assaad for bioterrorism? A few years earlier he had been involved in a bitter personal feud with a couple of his Ft. Detrick coworkers, including charges of racism, official reprimands, and angry recriminations all around. When an FBI official shared a copy of the accusatory letter with a noted language-forensics expert and allowed him to compare the text with the writings of 40 biowarfare lab employees, he found a perfect match with one of those individuals. For years I told my friends that anyone who spent 30 minutes with Google could probably determine the name and motive of the likely anthrax killer, and most of them successfully met my challenge.
This powerful evidence received almost no attention in the major national media, nor is there any indication that the FBI ever followed up on any of these clues or interrogated the named suspects. Instead, investigators attempted to pin the attacks on a Dr. Steven Hatfill based on negligible evidence, after which he was completely exonerated and won a $5.6 million settlement from the government for its years of severe harassment. Later, similar hounding of researcher Bruce Ivins and his family led to his suicide, after which the FBI declared the case closed, even though former colleagues of Dr. Ivins demonstrated that he had had no motive, means, or opportunity. In 2008, I commissioned a major 3,000-word cover story in my magazine summarizing all of this crucial evidence, and once again almost no one in the mainstream media paid the slightest attention.
An even more egregious case followed a couple of years later, with regard to the stunning revelations of Pulitzer Prize winner Sydney Schanberg, one of America’s foremost Vietnam War reporters and a former top editor at the New York Times. After years of research, Schanberg published massive evidence demonstrating that the endlessly ridiculed claims of America’s Vietnam MIA movement of the 1970s and 1980s were correct: the Nixon administration had indeed deliberately abandoned many hundreds of American POWs in Vietnam at the close of the war, and our government afterward spent decades covering up this shameful crime. Schanberg’s charges were publicly confirmed by two former Republican House members, one of whom had independently co-authored a 500 page book on the subject, exhaustively documenting the POW evidence.
Although a major focus of Schanberg’s account was the central role that Sen. John McCain had played in leading the later cover-up, the national media ignored these detailed charges during McCain’s bitter 2008 presidential campaign against Barack Obama. One of America’s most distinguished living journalists published what was surely “the story of the century” and none of America’s newspapers took notice.
In 2010 Schanberg republished this material in a collection of his other writings, and his work received glowing praise from Joseph Galloway, one of America’s top military correspondents, as well as other leading journalists; his charges are now backed by the weight of four New York Times Pulitzer Prizes. Around that same time, I produced a 15,000-word cover-symposium on the scandal, organized around Schanberg’s path-breaking findings and including contributions from other prominent writers. All of this appeared in the middle of Senator McCain’s difficult reelection campaign in Arizona, and once again the material was totally ignored by the state and national media.
An argument might be made that little harm has been done to the national interest by the media’s continued silence in the two examples described above. The anthrax killings have largely been forgotten and the evidence suggests that the motive was probably one of personal revenge. All the government officials involved in the abandonment of the Vietnam POWs are either dead or quite elderly, and even those involved in the later cover-up, such as John McCain, are in the twilight of their political careers. But an additional example remains completely relevant today, and some of the guilty parties hold high office.
During the mid-2000s I began noticing references on one or two small websites to a woman claiming to be a former FBI employee who was making the most outlandish and ridiculous charges, accusing high government officials of selling our nuclear-weapons secrets to foreign spies. I paid no attention to such unlikely claims and never bothered reading any of the articles.
A couple of years went by, and various website references to that same woman—Sibel Edmonds—kept appearing, although I continued to ignore them, secure that the silence of all my newspapers proved her to be delusional. Then in early 2008, the London Sunday Times, one of the world’s leading newspapers, ran a long, three-part front-page series presenting her charges, which were soon republished in numerous other countries. Daniel Ellsberg described Edmonds’s revelations as “far more explosive than the Pentagon Papers” and castigated the American media for completely ignoring a story that had reached the front pages of newspapers throughout the rest of the world. Such silence struck me as rather odd.
Philip Giraldi, a former CIA official who regularly writes for this magazine, suggested he investigate her charges. He found her highly credible, and his 3,000-word article in TAC presented some astonishing but very detailed claims.
Edmonds had been hired by the FBI to translate wiretapped conversations of a suspected foreign spy ring under surveillance, and she had been disturbed to discover that many of these hundreds of phone calls explicitly discussed the sale of nuclear-weapons secrets to foreign intelligence organizations, including those linked to international terrorism, as well as the placement of agents at key American military research facilities. Most remarkably, some of the individuals involved in these operations were high-ranking government officials; the staffs of several influential members of Congress were also implicated. On one occasion, a senior State Department figure was reportedly recorded making arrangements to pick up a bag containing a large cash bribe from one of his contacts. Very specific details of names, dates, dollar amounts, purchasers, and military secrets were provided.
The investigation had been going on for years with no apparent action, and Edmonds was alarmed to discover that a fellow translator quietly maintained a close relationship with one of the key FBI targets. When she raised these issues, she was personally threatened, and after appealing to her supervisors, eventually fired.
Since that time, she has passed a polygraph test on her claims, testified under oath in a libel lawsuit, expanded her detailed charges in a 2009 TAC cover story also by Giraldi, and most recently published a book recounting her case. Judiciary Committee Senators Chuck Grassley and Patrick Leahy have publicly backed some of her charges, a Department of Justice inspector general’s report has found her allegations “credible” and “serious,” while various FBI officials have vouched for her reliability and privately confirmed many of her claims. But none of her detailed charges has ever appeared in any of America’s newspapers. According to Edmonds, one of the conspirators routinely made payments to various members of the media, and bragged to his fellow plotters that “We just fax to our people at the New York Times. They print it under their names.”
At times, Congressional Democratic staff members became interested in the scandal, and promised an investigation. But once they learned that senior members of their own party were also implicated, their interest faded.
These three stories—the anthrax evidence, the McCain/POW revelations, and the Sibel Edmonds charges—are the sort of major exposés that would surely be dominating the headlines of any country with a properly-functioning media. But almost no American has ever heard of them. Before the Internet broke the chokehold of our centralized flow of information, I would have remained just as ignorant myself, despite all the major newspapers and magazines I regularly read.
Am I absolutely sure that any or all of these stories are true? Certainly not, though I think they probably are, given their overwhelming weight of supporting evidence. But absent any willingness of our government or major media to properly investigate them, I cannot say more.
However, this material does conclusively establish something else, which has even greater significance. These dramatic, well-documented accounts have been ignored by our national media, rather than widely publicized. Whether this silence has been deliberate or is merely due to incompetence remains unclear, but the silence itself is proven fact.
A likely reason for this wall of uninterest on so many important issues is that the disasters involved are often bipartisan in nature, with both Democrats and Republicans being culpable and therefore equally eager to hide their mistakes. Perhaps in the famous words of Benjamin Franklin, they realize that they must all hang together or they will surely all hang separately.
We always ridicule the 98 percent voter support that dictatorships frequently achieve in their elections and plebiscites, yet perhaps those secret-ballot results may sometimes be approximately correct, produced by the sort of overwhelming media control that leads voters to assume there is no possible alternative to the existing regime. Is such an undemocratic situation really so different from that found in our own country, in which our two major parties agree on such a broad range of controversial issues and, being backed by total media dominance, routinely split 98 percent of the vote? A democracy may provide voters with a choice, but that choice is largely determined by the information citizens receive from their media.
Most of the Americans who elected Barack Obama in 2008 intended their vote as a total repudiation of the policies and personnel of the preceding George W. Bush administration. Yet once in office, Obama’s crucial selections—Robert Gates at Defense, Timothy Geither at Treasury, and Ben Bernanke at the Federal Reserve—were all top Bush officials, and they seamlessly continued the unpopular financial bailouts and foreign wars begun by his predecessor, producing what amounted to a third Bush term.
Consider the fascinating perspective of the recently deceased Boris Berezovsky, once the most powerful of the Russian oligarchs and the puppet master behind President Boris Yeltsin during the late 1990s. After looting billions in national wealth and elevating Vladimir Putin to the presidency, he overreached himself and eventually went into exile. According to the New York Times, he had planned to transform Russia into a fake two-party state—one social-democratic and one neoconservative—in which heated public battles would be fought on divisive, symbolic issues, while behind the scenes both parties would actually be controlled by the same ruling elites. With the citizenry thus permanently divided and popular dissatisfaction safely channeled into meaningless dead-ends, Russia’s rulers could maintain unlimited wealth and power for themselves, with little threat to their reign. Given America’s history over the last couple of decades, perhaps we can guess where Berezovsky got his idea for such a clever political scheme.
Major References in The American Conservative:
- Christopher Ketchum: The Anthrax Files, August 25, 2008
- Ron Unz: Was Rambo Right?, July 2010
- Sydney Schanberg: Silent Treatment, July 2010
- Sydney Schanberg: McCain and the POW Cover-Up, July 2010
- Philip Giraldi: Found in Translation, January 28, 2008
- Philip Giraldi: Who’s Afraid of Sibel Edmonds?, November 2009
[Erratum: In my text I mentioned that Bernard Kerik, Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s New York City police chief during the 9/11 attacks, was a high school dropout with ties to organized crime, who is currently still serving his federal prison sentence on related charges. This was correct. However, President George W. Bush had nominated him to run America’s Department of Homeland Security rather than to be America’s Director of National Intelligence.]
Chinese Melamine and American Vioxx: A Comparison
In contrasting China and America, pundits often cite our free and independent media as one of our greatest strengths, together with the tremendous importance which our society places upon individual American lives. For us, a single wrongful death can sometimes provoke weeks of massive media coverage and galvanize the nation into corrective action, while life remains cheap in China, a far poorer land of over a billion people, ruled by a ruthless Communist Party eager to bury its mistakes. But an examination of two of the greatest public-health scandals of the last few years casts serious doubt on this widespread belief.
First, consider the details of the Chinese infant formula scandal of 2008. Unscrupulous businessmen had discovered they could save money by greatly diluting their milk products, then adding a plastic chemical compound called melamine to raise the apparent protein content back to normal levels. Nearly 300,000 babies throughout China had suffered urinary problems, with many hundreds requiring lengthy hospitalization for kidney stones. Six died. A wave of popular outrage swept past the controlled media roadblocks and initial government excuses, and soon put enormous pressure on Chinese officials to take forceful action against the wrongdoers.
China’s leaders may not be democratically elected, but they pay close attention to strong popular sentiment. Once pressed, they quickly launched a national police investigation which led to a series of arrests and uncovered evidence that this widespread system of food adulteration had been protected by bribe-taking government officials. Long prison sentences were freely handed out and a couple of the guiltiest culprits were eventually tried and executed for their role, measures that gradually assuaged popular anger. Indeed, the former head of the Chinese FDA had been executed for corruption in late 2007 under similar circumstances.
Throughout these events, American media coverage was extensive, with numerous front-page stories in our leading newspapers. Journalists discovered that similar methods of dangerous chemical adulteration had been used to produce Chinese pet food for export, and many family dogs in America had suffered or died as a result. With heavy coverage on talk radio and cable news shows, phrases such as “Chinese baby formula” or “Chinese pet food” became angry slurs, and there was talk of banning whole categories of imports from a country whose product safety standards were obviously so far below those found in Western societies. The legitimate concerns of ordinary Americans were fanned by local media coverage that sometimes bordered on the hysterical.
However, the American media reaction had been quite different during an earlier health scandal much closer to home.
In September 2004, Merck, one of America’s largest pharmaceutical companies, suddenly announced that it was voluntarily recalling Vioxx, its popular anti-pain medication widely used to treat arthritis-related ailments. This abrupt recall came just days after Merck discovered that a top medical journal was about to publish a massive study by an FDA investigator indicating that the drug in question greatly increased the risk of fatal heart attacks and strokes and had probably been responsible for at least 55,000 American deaths during the five years it had been on the market.
Within weeks of the recall, journalists discovered that Merck had found strong evidence of the potentially fatal side-effects of this drug even before its initial 1999 introduction, but had ignored these worrisome indicators and avoided additional testing, while suppressing the concerns of its own scientists. Boosted by a television advertising budget averaging a hundred million dollars per year, Vioxx soon became one of Merck’s most lucrative products, generating over $2 billion in yearly revenue. Merck had also secretly ghostwritten dozens of the published research studies emphasizing the beneficial aspects of the drug and encouraging doctors to widely prescribe it, thus transforming science into marketing support. Twenty-five million Americans were eventually prescribed Vioxx as an aspirin-substitute thought to produce fewer complications.
Although the Vioxx scandal certainly did generate several days of newspaper headlines and intermittently returned to the front pages as the resulting lawsuits gradually moved through our judicial system, the coverage still seemed scanty relative to the number of estimated fatalities, which matched America’s total losses in the Vietnam War. In fact, the media coverage often seemed considerably less than that later accorded to the Chinese infant food scandal, which had caused just a handful of deaths on the other side of the world.
The circumstances of this case were exceptionally egregious, with many tens of thousands of American deaths due to the sale of a highly lucrative but sometimes fatal drug, whose harmful effects had long been known to its manufacturer. But there is no sign that criminal charges were ever considered.
A massive class-action lawsuit dragged its way through the courts for years, eventually being settled for $4.85 billion in 2007, with almost half the money going to the trial lawyers. Merck shareholders also paid large sums to settle various other lawsuits and government penalties and cover the heavy legal costs of fighting all of these cases. But the loss of continuing Vioxx sales represented the greatest financial penalty of all, which provides a disturbing insight into the cost-benefit calculations behind the company’s original cover-up. When the scandal broke, Merck’s stock price collapsed, and there was a widespread belief that the company could not possibly survive, especially after evidence of a deliberate corporate conspiracy surfaced. Instead, Merck’s stock price eventually reached new heights in 2008 and today is just 15 percent below where it stood just before the disaster.
Furthermore, individuals make decisions rather than corporate entities, and none of the individuals behind Merck’s deadly decisions apparently suffered any serious consequences. The year after the scandal unfolded, Merck’s long-time CEO resigned and was replaced by one of his top lieutenants, but he retained the $50 million in financial compensation he had received over the previous five years, compensation greatly boosted by lucrative Vioxx sales. Senior FDA officials apologized for their lack of effective oversight and promised to do better in the future. American media conglomerates quietly mourned their loss of heavy Vioxx advertising, but continued selling the same airtime to Merck and its rivals for the marketing of other, replacement drugs, while their investigative arms soon focused on the horrors of tainted Chinese infant food and the endemic corruption of Chinese society.
This story of serious corporate malfeasance largely forgiven and forgotten by government and media is depressing enough, but it leaves out a crucial factual detail that seems to have almost totally escaped public notice. The year after Vioxx had been pulled from the market, the New York Times and other major media outlets published a minor news item, generally buried near the bottom of their back pages, which noted that American death rates had suddenly undergone a striking and completely unexpected decline.
The headline of the short article that ran in the April 19, 2005 edition of USA Today was typical: “USA Records Largest Drop in Annual Deaths in at Least 60 Years.” During that one year, American deaths had fallen by 50,000 despite the growth in both the size and the age of the nation’s population. Government health experts were quoted as being greatly “surprised” and “scratching [their] heads” over this strange anomaly, which was led by a sharp drop in fatal heart attacks.
On April 24, 2005, the New York Times ran another of its long stories about the continuing Vioxx controversy, disclosing that Merck officials had knowingly concealed evidence that their drug greatly increased the risk of heart-related fatalities. But the Times journalist made no mention of the seemingly inexplicable drop in national mortality rates that had occurred once the drug was taken off the market, although the news had been reported in his own paper just a few days earlier.
A cursory examination of the most recent 15 years worth of national mortality data provided on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website offers some intriguing clues to this mystery. We find the largest rise in American mortality rates occurred in 1999, the year Vioxx was introduced, while the largest drop occurred in 2004, the year it was withdrawn. Vioxx was almost entirely marketed to the elderly, and these substantial changes in national death-rate were completely concentrated within the 65-plus population. The FDA studies had proven that use of Vioxx led to deaths from cardiovascular diseases such as heart attacks and strokes, and these were exactly the factors driving the changes in national mortality rates.
The impact of these shifts was not small. After a decade of remaining roughly constant, the overall American death rate began a substantial decline in 2004, soon falling by approximately 5 percent, despite the continued aging of the population. This drop corresponds to roughly 100,000 fewer deaths per year. The age-adjusted decline in death rates was considerably greater.
Patterns of cause and effect cannot easily be proven. But if we hypothesize a direct connection between the recall of a class of very popular drugs proven to cause fatal heart attacks and other deadly illnesses with an immediate drop in the national rate of fatal heart attacks and other deadly illnesses, then the statistical implications are quite serious. Perhaps 500,000 or more premature American deaths may have resulted from Vioxx, a figure substantially larger than the 3,468 deaths of named individuals acknowledged by Merck during the settlement of its lawsuit. And almost no one among our political or media elites seems to know or care about this possibility. A recent Wall Street Journal column even called for relaxing FDA restrictions aimed at avoiding “rare adverse events,” which had been imposed after the discovery of “unanticipated side effects of high-profile drugs like Vioxx.”
There are obvious mitigating differences between these two national responses. The Chinese victims were children, and their sufferings from kidney stones and other ailments were directly linked to the harmful compounds that they had ingested. By contrast, the American victims were almost all elderly, and there was no means of determining whether a particular heart attack had been caused by Vioxx or other factors; the evidence implicating the drug was purely statistical, across millions of patients. Furthermore, since most of the victims were anyway nearing the end of their lives, the result was more an acceleration of the inevitable rather than cutting short an entire young life, and sudden fatal heart attacks are hardly the most unpleasant forms of death.
But against these important factors we must consider the raw numbers involved. American journalists seemed to focus more attention on a half-dozen fatalities in China than they did on the premature deaths of as many as 500,000 of their fellow American citizens.
The inescapable conclusion is that in today’s world and in the opinion of our own media, American lives are quite cheap, unlike those in China.
The Anthrax Files
The FBI claims to have caught the killer. But so much evidence has been neglected or mishandled that many experts still have doubts.
Seven years after the anthrax attacks shut down Congress, sowed panic nationwide, killed five, sickened 17, and allowed neocon propagandists to variously blame al-Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, the FBI claims to have gotten its man. But the official story doesn’t fully accord with the facts. Any reasonable assessment of the evidence suggests that the same powerful interests that might have been served by prolonging the investigation would have had a stake in finally bringing it to a tidy conclusion. That doesn’t mean that the killer was caught.
The acknowledged certainty is that the anthrax letters weren’t the work of Islamists or Iraqis. The attacks were perpetrated by someone with high-level access to U.S. government supplies of the deadly bacteria. Ground zero of the investigation has long been the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) at Fort Detrick, Maryland. But the lab had dropped from the headlines until recently, much as the FBI had seemingly allowed its investigation to languish.
The first week of August, the popular press got back in the game, reporting the apparent suicide of USAMRIID scientist Bruce E. Ivins, alleged to be the sole operator behind the anthrax letters. The Associated Press reported that Ivins, who is said to have killed himself on July 29 with an overdose of prescription Tylenol mixed with codeine, was “one of the government’s leading scientists researching vaccines and cures for anthrax exposure.” According to the AP, he was “brilliant but troubled.” His lawyer, Paul Kemp, says that Ivins passed a pair of polygraph tests and that the grand jury investigating the case was weeks from returning an indictment. Yet within days of his death, the bureau announced that it was beginning the shutdown of its “Amerithrax” investigation. “Anthrax Case a Wrap,” blared theDaily News on Aug. 4.
In April, it was reported that the FBI had been focusing on as many as four suspects. Fox News identified them as a “former deputy commander,” presumably in the U.S. Army, a “leading anthrax scientist,” and “a microbiologist.” The fourth suspect was given no description. Now the bureau is “confident that Dr. Ivins was the only person responsible for these attacks,” according to the assurances of the U.S. Attorney for the District of Columbia.
The Ivins news came close on the heels of a far quieter announcement on June 27 that the FBI’s investigation of the previous top anthrax suspect, Steven Hatfill, also a USAMRIID bioresearcher, ended not with a trial and conviction but with a $5.8 million settlement effectively admitting that the bureau had the wrong guy. Hatfill had been hounded by investigators for three years, his career and reputation ruined.
Ivins was subjected to similar treatment. According to the AP, he complained to friends that agents had “stalked” him and his family. They offered his son $2.5 million and “a sports car of his choice” to rat out his father. They approached his hospitalized daughter to turn evidence on him, plying her at bedside with pictures of the murdered anthrax victims and telling her, “This is what your father did.” W. Russell Byrne, Ivins’s supervisor at USAMRIID, told the AP that Ivins, 62, was emotionally broken by the FBI’s behavior: “One person said he’d sit at his desk and weep.”
Francis Boyle, a professor of law at the University of Illinois who drafted the 1989 Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act signed by President George H.W. Bush, advised the FBI in its initial investigation of the anthrax letters. Along with several other American bioweapons experts—among them Jonathan King, professor of molecular biology at MIT, and Barbara Rosenberg, who studied biowarfare with the Federation of American Scientists—Boyle warned early on that the spores issued from inside a U.S. research operation, possibly one that was classified. He provided the FBI with lists ofÂ scientists, contractors, and laboratories that had worked on anthrax projects, but he is skeptical of Ivins as the lone killer: “The Feds pursued the same strategy against Ivins as they did against Hatfill—persecute him until he broke, which Ivins did and Hatfill did not. Dead men tell no tales.”
Ivins, says Boyle, just doesn’t fit the bill. “It does not appear that he had the technological sophistication to manufacture this super weapons-grade anthrax, which would have included aerosolization, silicon coating, and an electrostatic charge.” Jeffrey Adamovicz, who directed the bacteriology division at Fort Detrick in 2003 and 2004, told McClatchy that the anthrax mailed to Sen. Tom Daschle was “so concentrated and so consistent and so clean that I would assert that Bruce could not have done that part.”
Following the release of the FBI’s public case against Ivins, the New York Times editorialized that “there is no direct evidence of his guilt” and decried the “lack of hard, incontrovertible proof.” The Washington Post called the case “admittedly circumstantial.” Investigators failed to place Ivins in New Jersey on the dates in September and October 2001 when the letters were reportedly mailed from a Princeton location. They swabbed his residence, locker, several cars, the tools in his laboratory, and his office space, but found no trace of anthrax that genetically matched the bacteria in the letters. Indeed, some of the evidence—all circumstantial, none forensic—was downright laughable. Ivins at one time maintained a mailbox under an assumed name where he received pornographic magazines. He had once been “obsessed” with a Princeton sorority because of a failed college romance, and the Princeton mailbox where one of the letters originated was located within 100 yards of a storage facility used by the sorority—in a location Ivins apparently last visited 27 years ago. He drank. He made homicidal statements to a mental-health support group. He wrote rambling letters to the editor of his local paper. How any of this motivated Bruce Ivins to kill fellow Americans with a bioweapon is not established.
Moreover, his former colleagues have repeatedly told the media that, as far as they are aware, Ivins didn’t know how to weaponize anthrax. He was a vaccine specialist, not a weaponizer. The assumption is thatÂ Ivins kept his weaponizing skills secret from his coworkers. But how did he learn those skills? Perhaps colleagues at Ft. Detrick provided the help in casual conversation. Yet there’s not the slightest indication that during his years at Ft. Detrick Ivins even once asked fellow scientists about weaponizing techniques.
Nor is it clear why Ivins—a registered Democrat—would single out Sens. Patrick Leahy and Tom Daschle to receive lethal letters. Interestingly, both had been critical impediments to passage of the Patriot Act. The first wave of anthrax mail, sent Sept. 18, 2001, targeted major media; the second round, posted Oct. 9, went to Congress. On Oct. 25, amid widespread panic, the act passed. Yet it is improbable that a mad scientist would specialize in such targeted political activity—or that he personally benefited from the repercussions. Many others did, however.
“In the absence of the anthrax attacks, 9/11 could easily have been perceived as a single, isolated event,” Salon’s Glenn Greenwald writes. “It was really the anthrax letters that severely ratcheted up the fear levels and created the climate that would dominate in this country for the next several years â�¦ that created the impression that social order itself was genuinely threatened by Islamic radicalism.”
By Oct. 28, ABC was reporting, “four well-placed and separate sources have told ABC News that initial tests on the anthrax by the U.S. Army at Fort Detrick, Maryland, have detected trace amounts of the chemical additives bentonite and silica”—bentonite being a hallmark of the Iraqi weapons program. (In 2007, ABC admitted that no bentonite was ever detected but refused to unmask its sources.) “Some are going to be quick to pick up on this as a smoking gun,” Peter Jennings said at the time.
The administration’s acolytes did not disappoint. William Kristol and Robert Kagan complained, “What will it take for the FBI and the CIA to start connecting the dots here? A signed confession from Saddam?” “The leading supplier suspect has to be Iraq,” the Wall Street Journal opined, “The government has to do everything possible to destroy the anthrax threat at its state-sponsored source.” Added Laurie Mylroie in National Review, “Iraqi intelligence was intimately involved in the 9/11 attacks and [the] military grade anthrax sent to Senators Leahy and Daschle almost certainly came from an Iraqi lab.” As late as 2007, long after it became apparent that the anthrax was homegrown, outlets like Fox News continued to insist on a Middle Eastern link.
Those making the case for war in Iraq and seeking to advance the administration’s domestic security agenda had good reason to resist a swift resolution to the case—especially one involving an American perpetrator. Whether by suggestion or as a result of its own incompetence, the FBI obliged.
As early as November 2001, the New York Times was reporting that the bureau’s “missteps” were “hampering the inquiry.” Indeed, from the beginning, the FBI has been in possession of a key piece of evidence that it apparently ignored.
Among the first suspects to come into the FBI’s sights was an Egyptian-born ex-USAMRIID biologist named Ayaad Assaad. He appeared on the radar because of an anonymous letter sent to the bureau identifying him as part of a terrorist cell possibly linked to the anthrax attacks. Yet, according to theHartford Courant, the FBI did not attempt to track down the author of the letter, “despite its curious timing, coming a matter of days before the existence of anthrax-laced mail became known.”
Assaad was quickly exonerated by FBI investigators, and the matter swiftly dropped—though the letter may have provided the best piece of evidence in the case. It was sent prior to the arrival of the anthrax letters, suggesting foreknowledge of the attacks, and its language was similar to that of the deadly mail. Moreover, it displayed an intimate knowledge of USAMRIID operations, suggesting that it came from within the limited ranks of Fort Detrick researchers —a relatively small group with access to and expertise in weaponized anthrax.
The FBI has refused to make a copy of the letter publicly available—or even to give one to Assaad himself. It did, however, share the contents with a Vassar College professor and language forensics expert named Don Foster, who famously fingered Joe Klein as the anonymous author behind Primary Colors and helped to catch the 1996 Atlanta Olympics bomber. After reading news reports, he requested a copy of the letter, and, following his review of documents written by “some 40 USAMRIID employees,” Foster “found writings by a female officer that looked like a perfect match,” according to an article he authored in the October 2003 Vanity Fair. When he brought this seemingly crucial clue to the attention of the FBI’s anthrax task force, however, the bureau declined to follow up. According to Foster, the senior FBI agent on the case had never even heard of the Assaad letter. (For the record, Foster isn’t an unimpeachable source. He strayed from his area of professional expertise and published unrelated circumstantial evidence in his Vanity Fair piece that wrongly fingered Hatfill, who sued the magazine, which settled on undisclosed terms.)
“The letter-writer clearly knew my entire background, my training in both chemical and biological agents, my security clearance, what floor I work on, that I have two sons, what train I take to work, and where I live,” Assaad told reporter Laura Rozen. Since he was almost immediately cleared, attempting to frame him served no purpose, except to indulge a personal enmity. To that end, Assaad suggested that the FBI question the pair of USAMRIID colleagues most likely to carry a grudge against him, Marian Rippy and Philip Zack, who years earlier had been reprimanded for sending Assad a racist poem. Though the Courant reported video evidence of Zack making after-hours trips to labs where pathogens were stored, there is no record of the FBI ever investigating him or Rippy, a colleague with whom he was having an extramarital affair.
The FBI’s failures don’t end there. The anthrax used in the terror attacks has been identified as similar to strains held at laboratories in Ames, Iowa. The Ames database, maintained and overseen by Iowa State University, was a comprehensive culture collection of some 100 vials gathered since 1928. It listed all parties, agencies, and labsÂ thatÂ acquired its anthrax strains.Â When researchers, fearful of terrorists breaching the lab, offered to destroy the anthrax cultures, the FBI did not object. “This was an astonishing thing to do,” Francis Boyle tells me. “It should have been preserved as evidence. This was a roadmap of everybody and anybody that had gotten access to develop the super-strain that hit Leahy and Daschle.”
Questions about the Ames database point to a bigger concern: where was the weapons-grade anthrax in the letters produced? If the FBI had an airtight case that the anthrax killer worked at Ft. Detrick—thanks to new DNA techniques supposedly linking the spores to that lab—surely the Assaad letter would be a key piece of evidence in the case against Ivins. At the very least it would have to be explained away rather than ignored.
Another possibility is that the attacks didn’t originate at USAMRIID at all, and the FBI has once again accused an innocent man. Ironically, it was Ivins who, among other investigators, was initially tasked by the FBI with analyzing the anthrax in the letters. Dr. Gerry Andrews, a professor of microbiology at the University of Wyoming and former colleague of Ivins at Ft. Detrick, wrote in the New York Times, “When [Ivins’s] team analyzed the powder, they found it to be a startlingly refined weapons-grade anthrax spore preparation, the likes of which had never been seen before by personnel at Fort Detrick.” Granted, Andrews has an interest in exonerating his former lab, but he goes on to make an astonishing allegation: “It is extremely improbable that this type of preparation could ever have been produced at Fort Detrick, certainly not of the grade and quality found in that envelope.”
If the scientists at Fort Detrick did not have the capacity to produce this kind of anthrax, who did? Boyle suggests an answer in his book, Biowarfare and Terrorism. He alleges that the evidence in the anthrax spores, if properly pursued, would have “led directly back to a secret but officially sponsored U.S. government biowarfare program that was illegal and criminal, in violation of [the] Biological Weapons Anti-Terrorism Act of 1989.” This might be easily dismissed as conspiracy theory except that a source no less reputable than the New York Times published a similar charge on Sept. 4, 2001: “the United States has embarked on a program of secret research on biological weapons that, some officials say, tests the limits of the global treaty banning such weapons. â�¦ earlier this year, administration officials said, the Pentagon drew up plans to engineer genetically a potentially more potent variant of the bacterium that causes anthrax.”
Boyle suggests possible perps: the Pentagon, the CIA, or perhaps private sector scientists acting under covert contract with the government. According to a 2002 BBC report, the CIA may indeed have been investigating “methods of sending anthrax through the mail which went madly out of control.” “The shocking assertion,” offered the BBC, “is that a key member of the covert operation may have removed, refined and eventually posted weapons-grade anthrax.” Boyle theorizes that the FBI’s investigation was purposely bungled as part of a cover-up. He argues that the legal process ensuing from a thorough investigation “would, in a court of law, directly implicate the United States government, its agencies, its officials, and its agents, in conducting illegal and criminal biowarfare research.”
But if such a program exists, why would anyone associated with it risk exposure by sending crude anthrax letters? Perhaps for the oldest motive in the world: money. In the wake of the postal terror, biowarfare funding under the rubric of “biodefense” received a major shot in the arm. By a vote of 99-0, the Senate passed the BioShield Act of 2004, which, on top of $22 billion for civilian biowarfare-related “defense work” funded between 2001 and 2005, allocates $5.6 billion through 2014 “to purchase and stockpile vaccines and drugs to fight anthrax, smallpox, and other potential agents of bioterror.” Critics claim that BioShield is a form of covert offensive biowarfare planning.
Such research could come at a high price—beyond the billions Congress readily rubber-stamped. “The bioterror programs are far more likely to generate new risks to public health, rather than to provide additional protections,” MIT microbiologist Jonathan King says. Programs such as BioShield are “also generating a network of small and large companies planning to profit.”
Hillel W. Cohen, associate professor of epidemiology and population health at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, offers a similar assessment. “Before 2001, some of us in public health described bioterrorism as an exaggerated threat,” Cohen says. “No one had ever died from bioterrorism, and we warned that the proliferation of laboratories studying anthrax and other biological weapons agents was a terrible mistake, diverting money from real health needs and dangerously multiplying the number of people with access. After the 2001 anthrax letters, our warnings were buried in an avalanche of fear-mongering.” Today, Cohen says, “billions are being spent to support many more such labs.”
Sen. Chuck Grassley is calling for a Congressional investigation, but we may never know the identity of the anthrax killer. Was it the uninvestigated Ft. Detrick letter-writer with compelling foreknowledge? The dead scientist the FBI initially asked to investigate the attacks then later turned against? Or some other individual or group, with access to high-grade strains, who stood to benefit from a bioterror scare? We know who didn’t put anthrax in the mail: Saddam Hussein or Osama bin Laden. Beyond that, all we know is that the FBI’s conduct—whether by bureaucratic bungling or some kind of cover-up—makes it unlikely this case will ever be definitively closed.
Christopher Ketcham writes for Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s and many other magazines.
American Pravda: Was Rambo Right?
Hundreds of POWs may have been left to die in Vietnam, abandoned by their government—and our media.
In the closing days of the 2008 presidential campaign, I clicked an ambiguous link on an obscure website and stumbled into a parallel universe.
During the previous two years of that long election cycle, the media narrative surrounding Sen. John McCain had been one of unblemished heroism and selfless devotion to his fellow servicemen. Thousands of stories on television and in print had told of his brutal torture at the hands of his North Vietnamese captors, his steely refusal to crack, and his later political career aimed at serving the needs of fellow Vietnam veterans. This storyline had first reached the national stage during his 2000 campaign, then returned with even greater force as he successfully sought the 2008 Republican nomination. Seemingly accepted by all, this history became a centerpiece of his campaign. McCain’s supporters touted his heroism as proof that he possessed the character to be entrusted with America’s highest office, while his detractors merely sought to change the subject.
Once I clicked that link, I encountered a very different John McCain.
I read copious, detailed evidence that hundreds of American POWs had been condemned to death at enemy hands by top American leaders, apparently because their safe return home would have constituted a major political embarrassment. I found documentation that the cover-up of this betrayal had gone on for decades, eventually drawing in a certain Arizona senator. According to this remarkable reconstruction of events, the average teenage moviegoer of the 1980s watching mindless action films such as “Rambo,” “Missing in Action,” and “Uncommon Valor” was seeing reality portrayed on screen, while the policy expert reading sober articles in the pages of The New Republic and The Atlantic was absorbing lies and propaganda. Since I had been believing those very articles, this was a stunning revelation.
But was this alternate description of reality correct? Could this one article be true and all the countless contrary pieces I had read in America’s most prestigious publications be false, merely the presentation of official propaganda endlessly repeated? I cannot say. I am not an expert on the history of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
Yet consider the source. The author of that remarkable 8,000-word exposé—“McCain and the POW Cover-Up,” published on The Nation Institute’s website—was Sydney Schanberg, one of America’s foremost Vietnam War journalists. His reporting won him a Pulitzer Prize, and his subsequent book on Cambodia was made into “The Killing Fields,” an Oscar-winning movie. Schanberg later served as one of the highest-ranking editors at the New York Times, with a third of the reporters at our national newspaper of record working under him. A case can be made that no living American journalist can write with greater credibility on Vietnam War matters. And he had labored for years researching and exhaustively documenting the story of American POWs abandoned in Indochina—a story that if true might easily represent the single greatest act of national dishonor ever committed by our political leaders.
He presented a mass of evidence with names, dates, and documentary detail. Many of the individuals mentioned are still alive and could be interviewed or called to testify. Sealed government records could be ordered unsealed. If America wishes to determine the truth, it can do so.
Yet what I found most remarkable about Schanberg’s essay were not its explosive historical claims but the absolute silence with which they were received in the mainstream media. In 2008, John McCain’s heroic war record and personal patriotism were central to his quest for supreme power—a goal he came very close to achieving. But when one of America’s most eminent journalists published an exhaustive report that the candidate had instead served as one of the leading figures in a monumental act of national treachery, our media took no notice. McCain’s public critics and the operatives of his Democratic opponent might eagerly seize upon every rumor that the senator had had a private lunch with a disreputable corporate lobbyist, but they ignored documented claims that he had covered up the killing of hundreds of American POWs. These allegations were serious enough and sufficiently documented to warrant national attention—yet they received none.
All of this might seem unimaginable except that it falls into a strong pattern of the press avoiding stories of overwhelming importance. Consider how many of the national disasters of the past few years have been caused by the unwillingness of our major media to question official truths or the widespread beliefs of our elites. The Iraq “cakewalk” to eliminate Saddam’s WMDs, the nationwide housing bubble, and the Madoff swindle might have been prevented or would never have reached such massive proportions if reporters and editors had been willing to investigate and present claims contrary to the soothing blandishments of the powerful. Instead, it has become the norm for press outlets simply to repeat, with a few word substitutions, stories indistinguishable from those previously published by dozens of other press outlets, without ever examining any contrary evidence that might raise doubts about this perceived reality. Truth has come to mean the lies that everyone believes.
A couple of years ago, in one of my last exchanges with my late friend Lt. Gen. Bill Odom, who ran the National Security Agency for President Ronald Reagan, we agreed a case could be made that today’s major American media had become just as dishonest and unreliable as the old Soviet propaganda outlets of the late 1970s. At the time, we were discussing the coverage of our road to the Iraq War, but subsequent events have demonstrated that this national illness is far more advanced than either of us had suspected. Whether or not Schanberg is proven correct, the shameful cowardice of our mainstream media is already proven by the wall of silence surrounding his work.
In an attempt to breach that wall, we present Schanberg’s account of how his remarkable story was buried, as well as his explosive original article. TAC has also convened a symposium of critics drawn from military, political, and journalism backgrounds to explain how this report could have failed to reach a mass audience. A small political magazine does not have the resources to investigate the detailed evidence of Schanberg’s case, but we can hold a mirror up to America’s major media and force them to see what stories they now regard as completely non-newsworthy.
And if Schanberg’s claims are indeed correct, they reveal the lethal consequences of America’s overweening national pride. After all, his history is a simple one. Following the battle of Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the Vietnamese refused to return their French POWs unless Paris agreed to pay financial compensation for the war. The French leaders paid the money and got their men back. Similarly, the Vietnamese refused to return their American POWs unless the U.S. government agreed to pay reparations. Nixon signed a document promising to do exactly that, but the Vietnamese, being cautious, kept many of the POWs back until the money was delivered. Then Congress refused to authorize the funds because “America doesn’t lose wars.” Nixon and later U.S. leaders never acknowledged the fate of these captives lest the American people become outraged. And as the years and decades went by, and various schemes to ransom or rescue the POWs were considered and rejected, their continued existence became a major liability to numerous powerful political figures, whose reputations would have been destroyed if any of the prisoners ever returned and told his story to the American people. So none of them ever came home.
John McCain and the POW Cover-Up
Eighteen months ago, TAC publisher Ron Unz discovered an astonishing account of the role the 2008 Republican presidential nominee, John McCain, had played in suppressing information about what happened to American soldiers missing in action in Vietnam. Below, we present in full Sydney Schanberg’s explosive story.
John McCain, who has risen to political prominence on his image as a Vietnam POW war hero, has, inexplicably, worked very hard to hide from the public stunning information about American prisoners in Vietnam who, unlike him, didn’t return home. Throughout his Senate career, McCain has quietly sponsored and pushed into federal law a set of prohibitions that keep the most revealing information about these men buried as classified documents. Thus the war hero who people would logically imagine as a determined crusader for the interests of POWs and their families became instead the strange champion of hiding the evidence and closing the books.
Almost as striking is the manner in which the mainstream press has shied from reporting the POW story and McCain’s role in it, even as the Republican Party has made McCain’s military service the focus of his presidential campaign. Reporters who had covered the Vietnam War turned their heads and walked in other directions. McCain doesn’t talk about the missing men, and the press never asks him about them.
The sum of the secrets McCain has sought to hide is not small. There exists a telling mass of official documents, radio intercepts, witness depositions, satellite photos of rescue symbols that pilots were trained to use, electronic messages from the ground containing the individual code numbers given to airmen, a rescue mission by a special forces unit that was aborted twice by Washington—and even sworn testimony by two Defense secretaries that “men were left behind.” This imposing body of evidence suggests that a large number—the documents indicate probably hundreds—of the U.S. prisoners held by Vietnam were not returned when the peace treaty was signed in January 1973 and Hanoi released 591 men, among them Navy combat pilot John S. McCain.
Mass of Evidence
The Pentagon had been withholding significant information from POW families for years. What’s more, the Pentagon’s POW/MIA operation had been publicly shamed by internal whistleblowers and POW families for holding back documents as part of a policy of “debunking” POW intelligence even when the information was obviously credible.
The pressure from the families and Vietnam veterans finally forced the creation, in late 1991, of a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs. The chairman was John Kerry. McCain, as a former POW, was its most pivotal member. In the end, the committee became part of the debunking machine.
One of the sharpest critics of the Pentagon’s performance was an insider, Air Force Lt. Gen. Eugene Tighe, who headed the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) during the 1970s. He openly challenged the Pentagon’s position that no live prisoners existed, saying that the evidence proved otherwise. McCain was a bitter opponent of Tighe, who was eventually pushed into retirement.
Included in the evidence that McCain and his government allies suppressed or sought to discredit is a transcript of a senior North Vietnamese general’s briefing of the Hanoi politburo, discovered in Soviet archives by an American scholar in 1993. The briefing took place only four months before the 1973 peace accords. The general, Tran Van Quang, told the politburo members that Hanoi was holding 1,205 American prisoners but would keep many of them at war’s end as leverage to ensure getting war reparations from Washington.
Throughout the Paris negotiations, the North Vietnamese tied the prisoner issue tightly to the issue of reparations. They were adamant in refusing to deal with them separately. Finally, in a Feb. 2, 1973 formal letter to Hanoi’s premier, Pham Van Dong, Nixon pledged $3.25 billion in “postwar reconstruction” aid “without any political conditions.” But he also attached to the letter a codicil that said the aid would be implemented by each party “in accordance with its own constitutional provisions.” That meant Congress would have to approve the appropriation, and Nixon and Kissinger knew well that Congress was in no mood to do so. The North Vietnamese, whether or not they immediately understood the double-talk in the letter, remained skeptical about the reparations promise being honored—and it never was. Hanoi thus appears to have held back prisoners—just as it had done when the French were defeated at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 and withdrew their forces from Vietnam. In that case, France paid ransoms for prisoners and brought them home.
In a private briefing in 1992, high-level CIA officials told me that as the years passed and the ransom never came, it became more and more difficult for either government to admit that it knew from the start about the unacknowledged prisoners. Those prisoners had not only become useless as bargaining chips but also posed a risk to Hanoi’s desire to be accepted into the international community. The CIA officials said their intelligence indicated strongly that the remaining men—those who had not died from illness or hard labor or torture—were eventually executed.
My own research, detailed below, has convinced me that it is not likely that more than a few—if any—are alive in captivity today. (That CIA briefing at the Agency’s Langley, Virginia, headquarters was conducted “off the record,” but because the evidence from my own reporting since then has brought me to the same conclusion, I felt there was no longer any point in not writing about the meeting.)
For many reasons, including the absence of a political constituency for the missing men other than their families and some veterans’ groups, very few Americans are aware of the POW story and of McCain’s role in keeping it out of public view and denying the existence of abandoned POWs. That is because McCain has hardly been alone in his campaign to hide the scandal.
The Arizona senator, now the Republican candidate for president, has actually been following the lead of every White House since Richard Nixon’s, and thus of every CIA director, Pentagon chief, and national security adviser, not to mention Dick Cheney, who was George H.W. Bush’s Defense secretary. Their biggest accomplice has been an indolent press, particularly in Washington.
An early and critical McCain secrecy move involved 1990 legislation that started in the House of Representatives. A brief and simple document, it was called “the Truth Bill” and would have compelled complete transparency about prisoners and missing men. Its core sentence reads: “[The] head of each department or agency which holds or receives any records and information, including live-sighting reports, which have been correlated or possibly correlated to United States personnel listed as prisoner of war or missing in action from World War II, the Korean conflict and the Vietnam conflict, shall make available to the public all such records held or received by that department or agency.”
Bitterly opposed by the Pentagon (and thus McCain), the bill went nowhere. Reintroduced the following year, it again disappeared. But a few months later, a new measure, known as “the McCain Bill,” suddenly appeared. By creating a bureaucratic maze from which only a fraction of the documents could emerge—only records that revealed no POW secrets—it turned the Truth Bill on its head. The McCain bill became law in 1991 and remains so today. So crushing to transparency are its provisions that it actually spells out for the Pentagon and other agencies several rationales, scenarios, and justifications for not releasing any information at all—even about prisoners discovered alive in captivity. Later that year, the Senate Select Committee was created, where Kerry and McCain ultimately worked together to bury evidence.
McCain was also instrumental in amending the Missing Service Personnel Act, which had been strengthened in 1995 by POW advocates to include criminal penalties, saying, “Any government official who knowingly and willfully withholds from the file of a missing person any information relating to the disappearance or whereabouts and status of a missing person shall be fined as provided in Title 18 or imprisoned not more than one year or both.” A year later, in a closed House-Senate conference on an unrelated military bill, McCain, at the behest of the Pentagon, attached a crippling amendment to the act, stripping out its only enforcement teeth, the criminal penalties, and reducing the obligations of commanders in the field to speedily search for missing men and to report the incidents to the Pentagon.
About the relaxation of POW/MIA obligations on commanders in the field, a public McCain memo said, “This transfers the bureaucracy involved out of the [battle] field to Washington.” He wrote that the original legislation, if left intact, “would accomplish nothing but create new jobs for lawyers and turn military commanders into clerks.”
McCain argued that keeping the criminal penalties would have made it impossible for the Pentagon to find staffers willing to work on POW/MIA matters. That’s an odd argument to make. Were staffers only “willing to work” if they were allowed to conceal POW records? By eviscerating the law, McCain gave his stamp of approval to the government policy of debunking the existence of live POWs.
McCain has insisted again and again that all the evidence—documents, witnesses, satellite photos, two Pentagon chiefs’ sworn testimony, aborted rescue missions, ransom offers apparently scorned—has been woven together by unscrupulous deceivers to create an insidious and unpatriotic myth. He calls it the “bizarre rantings of the MIA hobbyists.” He has regularly vilified those who keep trying to pry out classified documents as “hoaxers,” “charlatans,” “conspiracy theorists,” and “dime-store Rambos.”
Some of McCain’s fellow captives at Hoa Lo prison in Hanoi didn’t share his views about prisoners left behind. Before he died of leukemia in 1999, retired Col. Ted Guy, a highly admired POW and one of the most dogged resisters in the camps, wrote an angry open letter to the senator in an MIA newsletter—a response to McCain’s stream of insults hurled at MIA activists. Guy wrote, “John, does this [the insults] include Senator Bob Smith [a New Hampshire Republican and activist on POW issues] and other concerned elected officials? Does this include the families of the missing where there is overwhelming evidence that their loved ones were ‘last known alive’? Does this include some of your fellow POWs?”
It’s not clear whether the taped confession McCain gave to his captors to avoid further torture has played a role in his postwar behavior in the Senate. That confession was played endlessly over the prison loudspeaker system at Hoa Lo—to try to break down other prisoners—and was broadcast over Hanoi’s state radio. Reportedly, he confessed to being a war criminal who had bombed civilian targets. The Pentagon has a copy of the confession but will not release it. Also, no outsider I know of has ever seen a non-redacted copy of the debriefing of McCain when he returned from captivity, which is classified but could be made public by McCain.
All humans have breaking points. Many men undergoing torture give confessions, often telling huge lies so their fakery will be understood by their comrades and their country. Few will fault them. But it was McCain who apparently felt he had disgraced himself and his military family. His father, John S. McCain II, was a highly regarded rear admiral then serving as commander of all U.S. forces in the Pacific. His grandfather was also a rear admiral.
In his bestselling 1999 autobiography, Faith of My Fathers, McCain says he felt bad throughout his captivity because he knew he was being treated more leniently than his fellow POWs, owing to his high-ranking father and thus his propaganda value. Other prisoners at Hoa Lo say his captors considered him a prize catch and called him the “Crown Prince,” something McCain acknowledges in the book.
Also in this memoir, McCain expresses guilt at having broken under torture and given the confession. “I felt faithless and couldn’t control my despair,” he writes, revealing that he made two “feeble” attempts at suicide. (In later years, he said he tried to hang himself with his shirt and guards intervened.) Tellingly, he says he lived in “dread” that his father would find out about the confession. “I still wince,” he writes, “when I recall wondering if my father had heard of my disgrace.”
He says that when he returned home, he told his father about the confession, but “never discussed it at length”—and the admiral, who died in 1981, didn’t indicate he had heard anything about it before. But he had. In the 1999 memoir, the senator writes, “I only recently learned that the tape … had been broadcast outside the prison and had come to the attention of my father.”
Is McCain haunted by these memories? Does he suppress POW information because its surfacing would rekindle his feelings of shame? On this subject, all I have are questions.
Many stories have been written about McCain’s explosive temper, so volcanic that colleagues are loath to speak openly about it. One veteran congressman who has observed him over the years asked for confidentiality and made this brief comment: “This is a man not at peace with himself.”
He was certainly far from calm on the Senate POW committee. He browbeat expert witnesses who came with information about unreturned POWs. Family members who have personally faced McCain and pressed him to end the secrecy also have been treated to his legendary temper. He has screamed at them, insulted them, brought women to tears. Mostly his responses to them have been versions of: How dare you question my patriotism? In 1996, he roughly pushed aside a group of POW family members who had waited outside a hearing room to appeal to him, including a mother in a wheelchair.
But even without answers to what may be hidden in the recesses of McCain’s mind, one thing about the POW story is clear: if American prisoners were dishonored by being written off and left to die, that’s something the American public ought to know about.
10 Key Pieces of Evidence That Men Were Left Behind
1. In Paris, where the Vietnam peace treaty was negotiated, the United States asked Hanoi for the list of American prisoners to be returned, fearing that Hanoi would hold some prisoners back. The North Vietnamese refused, saying they would produce the list only after the treaty was signed. Nixon agreed with Kissinger that they had no leverage left, and Kissinger signed the accord on Jan. 27, 1973 without the prisoner list. When Hanoi produced its list of 591 prisoners the next day, U.S. intelligence agencies expressed shock at the low number. Their number was hundreds higher. The New York Times published a long, page-one story on Feb. 2, 1973 about the discrepancy, especially raising questions about the number of prisoners held in Laos, only nine of whom were being returned. The headline read, in part, “Laos POW List Shows 9 from U.S.—Document Disappointing to Washington as 311 Were Believed Missing.” And the story, by John Finney, said that other Washington officials “believe the number of prisoners [in Laos] is probably substantially higher.” The paper never followed up with any serious investigative reporting—nor did any other mainstream news organization.
2. Two Defense secretaries who served during the Vietnam War testified to the Senate POW committee in September 1992 that prisoners were not returned. James Schlesinger and Melvin Laird, both speaking at a public session and under oath, said they based their conclusions on strong intelligence data—letters, eyewitness reports, even direct radio contacts. Under questioning, Schlesinger chose his words carefully, understanding clearly the volatility of the issue: “I think that as of now that I can come to no other conclusion … some were left behind.” This ran counter to what President Nixon told the public in a nationally televised speech on March 29, 1973, when the repatriation of the 591 was in motion: “Tonight,” Nixon said, “the day we have all worked and prayed for has finally come. For the first time in 12 years, no American military forces are in Vietnam. All our American POWs are on their way home.” Documents unearthed since then show that aides had already briefed Nixon about the contrary evidence.
Schlesinger was asked by the Senate committee for his explanation of why President Nixon would have made such a statement when he knew Hanoi was still holding prisoners. He replied, “One must assume that we had concluded that the bargaining position of the United States … was quite weak. We were anxious to get our troops out and we were not going to roil the waters…” This testimony struck me as a bombshell. The New York Times appropriately reported it on page one but again there was no sustained follow-up by the Times or any other major paper or national news outlet.
3. Over the years, the DIA received more than 1,600 first-hand sightings of live American prisoners and nearly 14,000 second-hand reports. Many witnesses interrogated by CIA or Pentagon intelligence agents were deemed “credible” in the agents’ reports. Some of the witnesses were given lie-detector tests and passed. Sources provided me with copies of these witness reports, which are impressive in their detail. A lot of the sightings described a secondary tier of prison camps many miles from Hanoi. Yet the DIA, after reviewing all these reports, concluded that they “do not constitute evidence” that men were alive.
4. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, listening stations picked up messages in which Laotian military personnel spoke about moving American prisoners from one labor camp to another. These listening posts were manned by Thai communications officers trained by the National Security Agency (NSA), which monitors signals worldwide. The NSA teams had moved out after the fall of Saigon in 1975 and passed the job to the Thai allies. But when the Thais turned these messages over to Washington, the intelligence community ruled that since the intercepts were made by a “third party”—namely Thailand—they could not be regarded as authentic. That’s some Catch-22: the U.S. trained a third party to take over its role in monitoring signals about POWs, but because that third party did the monitoring, the messages weren’t valid.
Here, from CIA files, is an example that clearly exposes the farce. On Dec. 27, 1980, a Thai military signal team picked up a message saying that prisoners were being moved out of Attopeu (in southern Laos) by aircraft “at 1230 hours.” Three days later a message was sent from the CIA station in Bangkok to the CIA director’s office in Langley. It read, in part: “The prisoners … are now in the valley in permanent location (a prison camp at Nhommarath in Central Laos). They were transferred from Attopeu to work in various places … POWs were formerly kept in caves and are very thin, dark and starving.” Apparently the prisoners were real. But the transmission was declared “invalid” by Washington because the information came from a “third party” and thus could not be deemed credible.
5. A series of what appeared to be distress signals from Vietnam and Laos were captured by the government’s satellite system in the late 1980s and early ’90s. (Before that period, no search for such signals had been put in place.) Not a single one of these markings was ever deemed credible. To the layman’s eye, the satellite photos, some of which I’ve seen, show markings on the ground that are identical to the signals that American pilots had been specifically trained to use in their survival courses—such as certain letters, like X or K, drawn in a special way. Other markings were the secret four-digit authenticator numbers given to individual pilots. But time and again, the Pentagon, backed by the CIA, insisted that humans had not made these markings. What were they, then? “Shadows and vegetation,” the government said, insisting that the markings were merely normal topographical contours like saw-grass or rice-paddy divider walls. It was the automatic response—shadows and vegetation. On one occasion, a Pentagon photo expert refused to go along. It was a missing man’s name gouged into a field, he said, not trampled grass or paddy berms. His bosses responded by bringing in an outside contractor who found instead, yes, shadows and vegetation. This refrain led Bob Taylor, a highly regarded investigator on the Senate committee staff who had examined the photographic evidence, to comment to me: “If grass can spell out people’s names and secret digit codes, then I have a newfound respect for grass.”
6. On Nov. 11, 1992, Dolores Alfond, the sister of missing airman Capt. Victor Apodaca and chair of the National Alliance of Families, an organization of relatives of POW/MIAs, testified at one of the Senate committee’s public hearings. She asked for information about data the government had gathered from electronic devices used in a classified program known as PAVE SPIKE.
The devices were motion sensors, dropped by air, designed to pick up enemy troop movements. Shaped on one end like a spike with an electronic pod and antenna on top, they were designed to stick in the ground as they fell. Air Force planes would drop them along the Ho Chi Minh trail and other supply routes. The devices, though primarily sensors, also had rescue capabilities. Someone on the ground—a downed airman or a prisoner on a labor gang —could manually enter data into the sensor. All data were regularly collected electronically by U.S. planes flying overhead. Alfond stated, without any challenge or contradiction by the committee, that in 1974, a year after the supposedly complete return of prisoners, the gathered data showed that a person or people had manually entered into the sensors—as U.S. pilots had been trained to do—no less than 20 authenticator numbers that corresponded exactly to the classified authenticator numbers of 20 U.S. POWs who were lost in Laos. Alfond added, according to the transcript, “This PAVE SPIKE intelligence is seamless, but the committee has not discussed it or released what it knows about PAVE SPIKE.”
McCain attended that committee hearing specifically to confront Alfond because of her criticism of the panel’s work. He bellowed and berated her for quite a while. His face turning anger-pink, he accused her of “denigrating” his “patriotism.” The bullying had its effect—she began to cry.
After a pause Alfond recovered and tried to respond to his scorching tirade, but McCain simply turned away and stormed out of the room. The PAVE SPIKE file has never been declassified. We still don’t know anything about those 20 POWs.
7. As previously mentioned, in April 1993 in a Moscow archive, a researcher from Harvard, Stephen Morris, unearthed and made public the transcript of a briefing that General Tran Van Quang gave to the Hanoi politburo four months before the signing of the Paris peace accords in 1973.
In the transcript, General Quang told the Hanoi politburo that 1,205 U.S. prisoners were being held. Quang said that many of the prisoners would be held back from Washington after the accords as bargaining chips for war reparations. General Quang’s report added: “This is a big number. Officially, until now, we published a list of only 368 prisoners of war. The rest we have not revealed. The government of the USA knows this well, but it does not know the exact number … and can only make guesses based on its losses. That is why we are keeping the number of prisoners of war secret, in accordance with the politburo’s instructions.” The report then went on to explain in clear and specific language that a large number would be kept back to ensure reparations.
The reaction to the document was immediate. After two decades of denying it had kept any prisoners, Hanoi responded to the revelation by calling the transcript a fabrication.
Similarly, Washington—which had over the same two decades refused to recant Nixon’s declaration that all the prisoners had been returned—also shifted into denial mode. The Pentagon issued a statement saying the document “is replete with errors, omissions and propaganda that seriously damage its credibility,” and that the numbers were “inconsistent with our own accounting.”
Neither American nor Vietnamese officials offered any rationale for who would plant a forged document in the Soviet archives and why they would do so. Certainly neither Washington nor Moscow—closely allied with Hanoi—would have any motive, since the contents were embarrassing to all parties, and since both the United States and Vietnam had consistently denied the existence of unreturned prisoners. The Russian archivists simply said the document was “authentic.”
8. In his 2002 book, Inside Delta Force, retired Command Sgt. Maj. Eric Haney described how in 1981 his special forces unit, after rigorous training for a POW rescue mission, had the mission suddenly aborted, revived a year later, and again abruptly aborted. Haney writes that this abandonment of captured soldiers ate at him for years and left him disillusioned about his government’s vows to leave no men behind. “Years later, I spoke at length with a former highly placed member of the North Vietnamese diplomatic corps, and this person asked me point-blank: ‘Why did the Americans never attempt to recover their remaining POWs after the conclusion of the war?’” Haney writes. He continued, saying that he came to believe senior government officials had called off those missions in 1981 and 1982. (His account is on pages 314 to 321 of my paperback copy of the book.)
9. There is also evidence that in the first months of Ronald Reagan’s presidency in 1981, the White House received a ransom proposal for a number of POWs being held by Hanoi in Indochina. The offer, which was passed to Washington from an official of a third country, was apparently discussed at a meeting in the Roosevelt Room attended by Reagan, Vice President Bush, CIA director William Casey, and National Security Adviser Richard Allen. Allen confirmed the offer in sworn testimony to the Senate POW committee on June 23, 1992.
Allen was allowed to testify behind closed doors and no information was released. But a San Diego Union-Tribune reporter, Robert Caldwell, obtained the portion relating to the ransom offer and reported on it. The ransom request was for $4 billion, Allen testified. He said he told Reagan that “it would be worth the president’s going along and let’s have the negotiation.” When his testimony appeared in the Union-Tribune, Allen quickly wrote a letter to the panel, this time not under oath, recanting the ransom story and claiming his memory had played tricks on him. His new version was that some POW activists had asked him about such an offer in a meeting that took place in 1986, when he was no longer in government. “It appears,” he said in the letter, “that there never was a 1981 meeting about the return of POW/MIAs for $4 billion.”
But the episode didn’t end there. A Treasury agent on Secret Service duty in the White House, John Syphrit, came forward to say he had overheard part of the ransom conversation in the Roosevelt Room in 1981, when the offer was discussed by Reagan, Bush, Casey, Allen, and other cabinet officials.
Syphrit, a veteran of the Vietnam War, told the committee he was willing to testify, but they would have to subpoena him. Treasury opposed his appearance, arguing that voluntary testimony would violate the trust between the Secret Service and those it protects. It was clear that coming in on his own could cost Syphrit his career. The committee voted 7 to 4 not to subpoena him.
In the committee’s final report, dated Jan. 13, 1993 (on page 284), the panel not only chastised Syphrit for his failure to testify without a subpoena (“The committee regrets that the Secret Service agent was unwilling …”), but noted that since Allen had recanted his testimony about the Roosevelt Room briefing, Syphrit’s testimony would have been “at best, uncorroborated by the testimony of any other witness.” The committee omitted any mention that it had made a decision not to ask the other two surviving witnesses, Bush and Reagan, to give testimony under oath. (Casey had died.)
10. In 1990, Col. Millard Peck, a decorated infantry veteran of Vietnam then working at the DIA as chief of the Asia Division for Current Intelligence, asked for the job of chief of the DIA’s Special Office for Prisoners of War and Missing in Action. His reason for seeking the transfer, which was not a promotion, was that he had heard from officials throughout the Pentagon that the POW/MIA office had been turned into a waste-disposal unit for getting rid of unwanted evidence about live prisoners—a “black hole,” these officials called it.
Peck explained all this in his telling resignation letter of Feb. 12, 1991, eight months after he had taken the job. He said he viewed it as “sort of a holy crusade” to restore the integrity of the office but was defeated by the Pentagon machine. The four-page, single-spaced letter was scathing, describing the putative search for missing men as “a cover-up.”
Peck charged that, at its top echelons, the Pentagon had embraced a “mind-set to debunk” all evidence of prisoners left behind. “That national leaders continue to address the prisoner of war and missing in action issue as the ‘highest national priority,’ is a travesty,” he wrote. “The entire charade does not appear to be an honest effort, and may never have been. … Practically all analysis is directed to finding fault with the source. Rarely has there been any effective, active follow through on any of the sightings, nor is there a responsive ‘action arm’ to routinely and aggressively pursue leads.”
“I became painfully aware,” his letter continued, “that I was not really in charge of my own office, but was merely a figurehead or whipping boy for a larger and totally Machiavellian group of players outside of DIA … I feel strongly that this issue is being manipulated and controlled at a higher level, not with the goal of resolving it, but more to obfuscate the question of live prisoners and give the illusion of progress through hyperactivity.” He named no names but said these players are “unscrupulous people in the Government or associated with the Government” who “have maintained their distance and remained hidden in the shadows, while using the [POW] Office as a ‘toxic waste dump’ to bury the whole ‘mess’ out of sight.” Peck added that “military officers … who in some manner have ‘rocked the boat’ [have] quickly come to grief.”
Peck concluded, “From what I have witnessed, it appears that any soldier left in Vietnam, even inadvertently, was, in fact, abandoned years ago, and that the farce that is being played is no more than political legerdemain done with ‘smoke and mirrors’ to stall the issue until it dies a natural death.”
The disillusioned colonel not only resigned but asked to be retired immediately from active military service. The press never followed up.
My Pursuit of the Story
I covered the war in Cambodia and Vietnam, but came to the POW information only slowly afterward, when military officers I knew from that conflict began coming to me with maps and POW sightings and depositions by Vietnamese witnesses.
I was then city editor of the New York Times, no longer involved in foreign or national stories, so I took the data to the appropriate desks and suggested it was material worth pursuing. There were no takers. Some years later, in 1991, when I was an op-ed columnist at Newsday, the aforementioned special Senate committee was formed to probe the POW issue. I saw this as an opening and immersed myself in the reporting.
At Newsday, I wrote 36 columns over a two-year period, as well as a four-part series on a trip I took to North Vietnam to report on what happened to one missing pilot who was shot down over the Ho Chi Minh trail and captured when he parachuted down. After Newsday, I wrote thousands more words on the subject for other outlets. Some of the pieces were about McCain’s key role.
Though I wrote on many subjects for Life, Vanity Fair, and Washington Monthly, my POW articles appeared in Penthouse, the Village Voice, and APBnews.com. Mainstream publications just weren’t interested. Their disinterest was part of what motivated me, and I became one of a very short list of journalists who considered the story important.
Serving in the Army in Germany during the Cold War and witnessing combat firsthand as a reporter in India and Indochina led me to have great respect for those who fight for their country. To my mind, we dishonored U.S. troops when our government failed to bring them home from Vietnam after the 591 others were released—and then claimed they didn’t exist. And politicians dishonor themselves when they pay lip service to the bravery and sacrifice of soldiers only to leave untold numbers behind, rationalizing to themselves that it’s merely one of the unfortunate costs of war.
John McCain—now campaigning for the White House as a war hero, maverick, and straight shooter—owes the voters some explanations. The press were long ago wooed and won by McCain’s seeming openness, Lone Ranger pose, and self-deprecating humor, which may partly explain their ignoring his record on POWs. In the numerous, lengthy McCain profiles that have appeared of late in papers like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Wall Street Journal, I may have missed a clause or a sentence along the way, but I have not found a single mention of his role in burying information about POWs. Television and radio news programs have been similarly silent.
Reporters simply never ask him about it. They didn’t when he ran unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination in 2000. They haven’t now, despite the fact that we’re in the midst of another war—a war he supports and one that has echoes of Vietnam. The only explanation McCain has ever offered for his leadership on legislation that seals POW files is that he believes the release of such information would only stir up fresh grief for the families of those who were never accounted for in Vietnam. Of the scores of POW families I’ve met over the years, only a few have said they want the books closed without knowing what happened to their men. All the rest say that not knowing is exactly what grieves them.
Isn’t it possible that what really worries those intent on keeping the POW documents buried is the public disgust that the contents of those files would generate?
How the Senate Committee Perpetuated the Debunking
In its early months, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs gave the appearance of being committed to finding out the truth about the MIAs. As time went on, however, it became clear that they were cooperating in every way with the Pentagon and CIA, who often seemed to be calling the shots, even setting the agendas for certain key hearings. Both agencies held back the most important POW files. Dick Cheney was the Pentagon chief then; Robert Gates, now the Pentagon chief, was the CIA director.
Further, the committee failed to question any living president. Reagan declined to answer questions; the committee didn’t contest his refusal. Nixon was given a pass. George H.W. Bush, the sitting president, whose prints were all over this issue from his days as CIA chief in the 1970s, was never even approached. Troubled by these signs, several committee staffers began asking why the agencies they should be probing had been turned into committee partners and decision makers. Memos to that effect were circulated. The staff made the following finding, using intelligence reports marked “credible” that covered POW sightings through 1989: “There can be no doubt that POWs were alive … as late as 1989.” That finding was never released. Eventually, much of the staff was in rebellion.
This internecine struggle continued right up to the committee’s last official act—the issuance of its final report. The Executive Summary, which comprised the first 43 pages, was essentially a whitewash, saying that only “a small number” of POWs could have been left behind in 1973 and that there was little likelihood that any prisoners could still be alive. The Washington press corps, judging from its coverage, seems to have read only this air-brushed summary, which had been closely controlled.
But the rest of the 1,221-page Report on POW/MIAs was quite different. Sprinkled throughout are pieces of hard evidence that directly contradict the summary’s conclusions. This documentation established that a significant number of prisoners were left behind—and that top government officials knew this from the start. These candid findings were inserted by committee staffers who had unearthed the evidence and were determined not to allow the truth to be sugar-coated.
If the Washington press corps did actually read the body of the report and then failed to report its contents, that would be a scandal of its own. The press would then have knowingly ignored the steady stream of findings in the body of the report that refuted the summary and indicated that the number of abandoned men was not small but considerable. The report gave no figures but estimates from various branches of the intelligence community ranged up to 600. The lowest estimate was 150.
Highlights of the report that undermine the benign conclusions of the Executive Summary:
• Pages 207-209: These three pages contain revelations of what appear to be either massive intelligence failures or bad intentions—or both. The report says that until the committee brought up the subject in 1992, no branch of the intelligence community that dealt with analysis of satellite and lower-altitude photos had ever been informed of the specific distress signals U.S. personnel were trained to use in the Vietnam War, nor had they ever been tasked to look for any such signals at all from possible prisoners on the ground.
The committee decided, however, not to seek a review of old photography, saying it “would cause the expenditure of large amounts of manpower and money with no expectation of success.” It might also have turned up lots of distress-signal numbers that nobody in the government was looking for from 1973 to 1991, when the committee opened shop. That would have made it impossible for the committee to write the Executive Summary it seemed determined to write.
The failure gets worse. The committee also discovered that the DIA, which kept the lists of authenticator numbers for pilots and other personnel, could not “locate” the lists of these codes for Army, Navy, or Marine pilots. They had lost or destroyed the records. The Air Force list was the only one intact, as it had been preserved by a different intelligence branch.
The report concluded, “In theory, therefore, if a POW still living in captivity [today], were to attempt to communicate by ground signal, smuggling out a note or by whatever means possible, and he used his personal authenticator number to confirm his identity, the U.S. government would be unable to provide such confirmation, if his number happened to be among those numbers DIA cannot locate.”
It’s worth remembering that throughout the period when this intelligence disaster occurred—from the moment the treaty was signed in 1973 until 1991—the White House told the public that it had given the search for POWs and POW information the “highest national priority.”
• Page 13: Even in the Executive Summary, the report acknowledges the existence of clear intelligence, made known to government officials early on, that important numbers of captured U.S. POWs were not on Hanoi’s repatriation list. After Hanoi released its list (showing only ten names from Laos—nine military men and one civilian), President Nixon sent a message on Feb. 2, 1973 to Hanoi’s Prime Minister Pham Van Dong saying, “U.S. records show there are 317 American military men unaccounted for in Laos and it is inconceivable that only ten of these men would be held prisoner in Laos.”
Nixon was right. It was inconceivable. Then why did the president, less than two months later, on March 29, 1973, announce on national television that “all of our American POWs are on their way home”?
On April 13, 1973, just after all 591 men on Hanoi’s official list had returned to American soil, the Pentagon got into step with the president and announced that there was no evidence of any further live prisoners in Indochina (this is on page 248).
• Page 91: A lengthy footnote provides more confirmation of the White House’s knowledge of abandoned POWs. The footnote reads, “In a telephone conversation with Select Committee Vice-Chairman Bob Smith on December 29, 1992, Dr. Kissinger said that he had informed President Nixon during the 60-day period after the peace agreement was signed that U.S. intelligence officials believed that the list of prisoners captured in Laos was incomplete. According to Dr. Kissinger, the President responded by directing that the exchange of prisoners on the lists go forward, but added that a failure to account for the additional prisoners after Operation Homecoming would lead to a resumption of bombing. Dr. Kissinger said that the President was later unwilling to carry through on this threat.”
When Kissinger learned of the footnote while the final editing of the committee report was in progress,he and his lawyers lobbied fiercely through two Republican allies on the panel—one of them was John McCain—to get the footnote expunged. The effort failed. The footnote stayed intact.
• Pages 85-86: The committee report quotes Kissinger from his memoirs, writing solely in reference to prisoners in Laos: “We knew of at least 80 instances in which an American serviceman had been captured alive and subsequently disappeared. The evidence consisted either of voice communications from the ground in advance of capture or photographs and names published by the Communists. Yet none of these men was on the list of POWs handed over after the Agreement.”
Then why did he swear under oath to the committee in 1992 that he never had any information that specific, named soldiers were captured alive and hadn’t been returned by Vietnam?
• Page 89: In the middle of the prisoner repatriation and U.S. troop-withdrawal process agreed to in the treaty, when it became clear that Hanoi was not releasing everyone it held, a furious chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Thomas Moorer, issued an order halting the troop withdrawal until Hanoi complied with the agreement. He cited in particular the known prisoners in Laos. The order was retracted by President Nixon the next day. In 1992, Moorer, by then retired, testified under oath to the committee that his order had received the approval of the president, the national security adviser, and the secretary of Defense. Nixon, however, in a letter to the committee, wrote, “I do not recall directing Admiral Moorer to send this cable.”
The report did not include the following information: behind closed doors, a senior intelligence officer had testified to the POW committee that when Moorer’s order was rescinded, the angry admiral sent a “back-channel” message to other key military commanders telling them that Washington was abandoning known live prisoners. “Nixon and Kissinger are at it again,” he wrote. “SecDef and SecState have been cut out of the loop.” In 1973, the witness was working in the office that processed this message. His name and his testimony are still classified. A source present for the testimony provided me with this information and also reported that in that same time period, Moorer had stormed into Defense Secretary Schlesinger’s office and, pounding on his desk, yelled: “The bastards have still got our men.” Schlesinger, in his own testimony to the committee a few months later, was asked about—and corroborated—this account.
• Pages 95-96: In early April 1973, Deputy Defense Secretary William Clements “summoned” Dr. Roger Shields, then head of the Pentagon’s POW/MIA Task Force, to his office to work out “a new public formulation” of the POW issue; now that the White House had declared all prisoners to have been returned, a new spin was needed. Shields, under oath, described the meeting to the committee. He said Clements told him, “All the American POWs are dead.” Shields said he replied: “You can’t say that.” Clements shot back: “You didn’t hear me. They are all dead.” Shields testified that at that moment he thought he was going to be fired, but he escaped from his boss’s office still holding his job.
• Pages 97-98: A couple of days later, on April 11, 1973, a day before Shields was to hold a Pentagon press conference on POWs, he and Gen. Brent Scowcroft, then the deputy national security adviser, went to the Oval Office to discuss the “new public formulation” and its presentation with President Nixon.
The next day, reporters right off asked Shields about missing POWs. Shields fudged his answers. He said, “We have no indications at this time that there are any Americans alive in Indochina.” But he went on to say that there had not been “a complete accounting” of those lost in Laos and that the Pentagon would press on to account for the missing—a seeming acknowledgement that some Americans were still alive and unaccounted for.
The press, however, seized on Shields’s denials. One headline read, “POW Unit Boss: No Living GIs Left in Indochina.”
• Page 97: The POW committee, knowing that Nixon taped all his meetings in the Oval Office, sought the tape of that April 11, 1973 Nixon-Shields-Scowcroft meeting to find out what Nixon had been told and what he had said about the evidence of POWs still in Indochina. The committee also knew there had been other White House meetings that centered on intelligence about live POWs. A footnote on page 97 states that Nixon’s lawyers said they would provide access to the April 11 tape “only if the Committee agreed not to seek any other White House recordings from this time period.” The footnote says that the committee rejected these terms and got nothing. The committee never made public this request for Nixon tapes until the brief footnote in its 1993 report.
None of this compelling evidence in the committee’s full report dislodged McCain from his contention that the whole POW issue was a concoction by deluded purveyors of a “conspiracy theory.” But an honest review of the full report, combined with the other documentary evidence, tells the story of a frustrated and angry president, and his national security adviser, furious at being thwarted at the peace table by a small, much less powerful country that refused to bow to Washington’s terms. That president seems to have swallowed hard and accepted a treaty that left probably hundreds of American prisoners in Hanoi’s hands, to be used as bargaining chips for reparations.
Maybe Nixon and Kissinger told themselves that they could get the prisoners home after some time had passed. But perhaps it proved too hard to undo a lie as big as this one. Washington said no prisoners were left behind, and Hanoi swore it had returned all of them. How could either side later admit it had lied? Time went by and as neither side budged, telling the truth became even more difficult and remote. The public would realize that Washington knew of the abandoned men all along. The truth, after men had been languishing in foul prison cells, could get people impeached or thrown in jail.
Which brings us to today, when the Republican candidate for president is the contemporary politician most responsible for keeping the truth about this matter hidden. Yet he says he’s the right man to be the commander in chief, and his credibility in making this claim is largely based on his image as a POW hero.
On page 468 of the 1,221-page report, McCain parsed his POW position oddly, “We found no compelling evidence to prove that Americans are alive in captivity today. There is some evidence—though no proof—to suggest only the possibility that a few Americans may have been kept behind after the end of America’s military involvement in Vietnam.”
“Evidence though no proof.” Clearly, no one could meet McCain’s standard of proof as long as he is leading a government crusade to keep the truth buried.
To this reporter, this sounds like a significant story and a long overdue opportunity for the press to finally dig into the archives to set the historical record straight—and even pose some direct questions to the candidate.
Sydney Schanberg has been a journalist for nearly 50 years. The 1984 movie “The Killing Fields,” which won several Academy Awards, was based on his book The Death and Life of Dith Pran. In 1975, Schanberg was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for international reporting “at great risk.” He is also the recipient of two George Polk awards, two Overseas Press Club awards, and the Sigma Delta Chi prize for distinguished journalism. His latest book is Beyond the Killing Fields (www.beyondthekillingfields.com). This piece is reprinted with permission from The Nation Institute.