The Endless Search
t is an article of faith for men and women in uniform that if they are taken prisoner or become missing in action, the U.S. government will do its best to find them and bring them home.
For Kathy Borah Duez that faith was shattered in 1991, the year her parents received photographs that forever changed their lives. They got the photos from a circuit court judge in Nashville, Tenn., who had been given them by a Vietnamese court officer. The photos showed a man called "Bara" allegedly held prisoner in Southeast Asia. The judge contacted the Borahs because he believed the photos might be of their son (and Duez's brother), Lt. Dan Borah.
The Borahs were shocked. Since their son had been shot down over Quang Tri Province, South Vietnam, on Sept. 24, 1972, they had believed he was dead. Military casualty officials told them he had been killed after his plane went down. Nearly 20 years later, they were confronted with photographs that looked remarkably like Dan, as they imagined he would have aged.
Still, they might easily have accepted the Defense Department's contention that the photos were a hoax, but while digging for more information in the Library of Congress and the National Archives, they found a paper trail of documents showing that federal officials knew Dan Borah had been captured alive when his family was told of his death.
"It's as if something you believed in all your life has crumbled before your eyes," says Duez. "I come from a family where our parents taught us to love our country and respect our government. Our family was not active in the POW/MIA issue. We had accepted Dan's death."
The Borahs are like other Americans who lost their sons, fathers, brothers and husbands along with their faith in the government that pledged to stand by them in the conflicts, hot and cold, since World War II.
Many families of service members who have sought information about missing loved ones say they have been met with condescension, misinformation or silence. As reliable information has been withheld, conspiracy theories have flourished and a tragic cottage industry has developed in this country and Southeast Asia propagating theories that uncounted Americans may still be held captive overseas.
Since 1982, there have been at least eight investigations into accusations of a U.S. government conspiracy and cover-up of the POW/MIA issue. While the investigations have revealed tremendous problems in the way the Defense Department has accounted for missing personnel, none have found any evidence of a cover-up. Nonetheless, a 1994 opinion poll conducted by CBS and The New York Times found that more than half of Americans believe servicemen missing in action from the Vietnam War are still held captive in Vietnam. This gulf between the government and its citizens may have been preventable.
For lack of resources, political support and leadership, and also out of negligence and sometimes plain incompetence, a series of Defense Department offices operating since the mid-1970's have bungled a critical obligation to service members and their families. The latest incarnation, the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office (DPMO), was created in July1993 to rectify this situation. It was a tall order. DPMO's stated purpose was to "serve as the DoD focal point for POW/MIA matters" by consolidating the operations of four separate Defense offices responsible for missing servicemen, thereby providing more timely and reliable information to families.
Less than three years after its creation, DPMO may be facing its demise. The 1996 defense authorization act (PL104-106) calls for the creation of a missing persons office at the Defense Department to consolidate all functions related to missing personnel, including search and rescue operations. Cmdr. Mark Jensen, the assistant for current operations at DPMO's Plans and Policy Division, is working out plans to comply with the act. However, some in Congress are calling for an entirely new office and staff to replace DPMO.
To understand DPMO's challenge, it is necessary to understand the politically and emotionally charged atmosphere in which the office was created. In 1992, President Bush began overtures to normalize relations with Vietnam. The same year, Russian President Boris Yeltsin pledged to open archives that could shed light on the fate of American servicemen who may have been taken to the former Soviet Union during the Cold War. "Even if one American can be found I will find him and return him," Yeltsin pledged in an address before Congress.
That statement created a firestorm. The United States and Russia established a joint commission to review cases of missing service members. The Defense Department in turn directed the Army to establish Task Force Russia, a group of military and civilian analysts to support the commission with research, analysis and document translation.
At the same time Task Force Russia was being created, the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs was holding explosive hearings revealing serious problems in the way the Defense Department, particularly the International Security Affairs Office of POW/MIA Affairs and the Special Office for POW/MIA Affairs at the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), had been tracking missing servicemen and dealing with concerned families.
As a result of those hearings, Congress voted to establish DPMO to combine the Defense and DIA offices with Task Force Russia and the Central Documentation Office, which had been established by the Defense secretary in 1991 to review and declassify materials related to the POW/MIA issue. Headed by retired Air Force Brig. Gen. James Wold, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for POW/MIA affairs, DPMO has a staff of about 100 people and a budget of $64 million, including the cost of field operations.
As with most reorganizations, DPMO's birth was much more complicated than it appeared. Before DPMO opened for business, members of Task Force Russia and the Defense Department's POW/MIA Office had repeatedly locked horns, primarily over the release of information to family members. Task Force Russia's policy was to share as much information with families as soon as possible and to deal with them directly. The task force also published an unclassified biweekly report of its findings. This made DoD officials nervous, since the information coming out of the Russian archives was unpredictable. They felt it "was like walking across a minefield without a mine detector," says one official familiar with the situation.
The Senate Select Committee had praised the Army's performance in setting up Task Force Russia and applauded the task force's effort to reach out to the families of missing servicemen. At the same time, the committee was critical of the Defense Department POW/MIA offices and service casualty offices. So while the Army ultimately agreed with the consolidation, it did so with some reluctance. In an April 1993 memo on the proposal, William D. Clark, then acting Assistant Secretary of the Army for Manpower and Reserve Affairs, wrote: "With respect to the all-important issue of credibility, the Army has earned it; DoD has had many difficulties. The reorganization could endanger this credibility, but this is not a basis upon which the Army can non-concur."
Four months after Task Force Russia was absorbed into DPMO in July 1993, the authorization for the 27 military personnel slots associated with the task force was allowed to expire, essentially dismantling it. The move was a blow to many families of Korean War and Cold War service members missing in action, who had come to rely on the task force.
"I loved the original task force," says Irene Mandra, whose brother, Marine Sgt. Phillip Mandra, went missing August 7, 1952, during the Korean War. "They worked with me and they were sincere. With this new group, some of the people are honest and want to do the right thing, but the bureaucracy won't let them." Mandra and many other family members say it is difficult to reach DPMO analysts to talk about their cases. When families write to DPMO, it sometimes takes months to get a response. In addition, many families say DPMO personnel dismiss information or decline to follow up on leads the families believe are relevant.
If family members could call analysts directly and talk to them whenever they like, the analysts would spend so much time on the phone they wouldn't get anything done, responds Alan Liotta, DPMO's deputy director. "Our biggest challenge is what we call answering the mail-responding to our customers. We get many requests for information. We recognize our response time is not where it should be," he admits. DPMO responds to hundreds of letters and phone calls a year, some requiring extensive research and coordination to answer. Liotta said DPMO has formed a "process action team" to explore ways the office can be more responsive. The team is expected to report its findings in June.
New Office, Old Baggage
Family members are not DPMO's only critics. Al Santoli, a special assistant to Rep. Robert Dornan, R-Calif., says the office is not what Congress envisioned it would be. Instead, it is composed of many of the same people who occupied the DoD offices formerly responsible for the POW/MIA issues. The core of DPMO is the former Defense Intelligence Agency Special Office for POW/MIA Affairs.
A 1985 internal review of that office showed that case files were incomplete, sloppy and unprofessional. In some cases, obvious follow-up actions were called for but not taken. The office failed to use some basic analytical tools, such as plotting live sightings on a map to look for patterns, according to the review.
"We're talking about some of the same people having been [working this issue] for 10 to 20 years," Santoli says. "If it were one or two [problems] you would think it was an anomaly or that just one individual was incompetent. But you have so many things wrong. We're finding the same problems today. It is practically unchanged."
"What you have are a lot of people who have been in this business for a long time," agrees a former member of Task Force Russia. "The longer their careers have been tied to certain positions, the more of a repudiation of their careers it is if they suddenly start drawing new conclusions."
Wold acknowledges there have been problems getting DPMO off the ground, but he believes any cultural problems inherent in any of the previous organizations can be worked out with appropriate management. He is more concerned, he says, that structural problems are leading to inefficiencies in the office. For example, not long after Wold took over, a letter he describes as being "from about the highest level in government" came across his desk nine months after the deadline for a reply.
In August 1994, Wold requested an evaluation of DPMO by the DoD's deputy assistant inspector general for program evaluation. Among the IG's findings, reported in a white paper in August 1995, were that "basic missions and tasks were not well-defined or communicated within the organization; no strategic planning process was in place; and the organizational structure was turbulent, poorly defined, and not consistent with current policy guidance regarding organizational layering."
Like many government organizations, DPMO is saddled with a rather vague mission statement-to provide centralized management of POW/MIA affairs within DoD-and is expected to serve multiple clients, including the White House, families, Congress and the public, who often have conflicting priorities.
DPMO's mission is complicated by the fact that several other organizations continue to deal with POW/MIA issues: the Military Service Casualty and Mortuary Affairs Office; the U.S. Army's Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii; the U.S. Pacific Command's Joint Task Force Full Accounting, which conducts field investigations in Southeast Asia; and the Joint Services Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape Agency, which develops policy and procedures that may affect future POWs.
One of the most acute problems for DPMO has been its unstable and ill-defined structure. Within a six-month period, the IG team studying DPMO was provided with six different organizational charts, each reflecting new structures and personnel. "We did not find evidence that these changes were based on a systematic assessment of how best to organize DPMO to meet its mission," the team reported. In addition, DPMO's supervisor-to-employee ratio was 1-to-3.5, compared with the Defense Performance Review goal of 1-to-14.
"We were really very pleased with the report," Liotta says. "[It] identified many of the major issues we had seen and reaffirmed the need to get four separate [organizational] cultures into one structure," he says.
Wold attributes some of DPMO's early problems to personnel shortages and heavy reliance on reserve personnel. He has decided to hold off on further organizational changes to give employees more stability, but expects to revisit the issue in the future. "We're far beyond some of those early problems now," he says.
Several family members of POWs and MIAs, especially those of servicemen lost in Southeast Asia, say DPMO is somewhat more responsive than previous Defense Department organizations. Nonetheless, they have serious concerns about the new organization.
Valerie Gould, whose father, Col. Frank Gould, went missing along the border between Laos and Thailand during the Vietnam War, says she has no problem getting through on the phone to the manager at DPMO who is responsible for tracking information about his case. She receives regular updates of new information and overall, the service is improving, she says. Except for DPMO's response to live-sighting reports of her father in Laos.
She learned of the first live-sighting report from the Defense Department in 1991. While DPMO officials kept her informed of subsequent live-sighting reports, none was ever investigated, she says. "I truly believed they'd be in there in a New York minute in the event of a live sighting," she says.
In November 1995 hearings before the House National Security Committee, Gould relayed her frustration to members of Congress: "We have been informed of more than seven sightings of my father. We know there are more that have yet to be declassified and released to us. His file contains over three pages of source reports with possible and probable correlations to my father. . . . Has anyone in the government or military even bothered to physically check the live sightings out? No, they have not. Have they interviewed sources in a timely manner, say within a few weeks of the initial contact? No, they have not."
Instead, Gould's mother received a letter from Charles Henley, chief of DPMO's External Affairs Division. Henley wrote: "The similarities of the information contained in the reports appear to corroborate that Col. Gould is alive; however, there is no verbiage in these or any other reports indicating that he wants to return home."
Gould was astounded. "If I didn't have the letter in writing nobody would believe me. I wouldn't believe it myself," she says. When asked for an explanation, DPMO responded with this written statement: "The letter to Mrs. Gould contained an unfortunate choice of words and we regret that it was sent to her using that language. Mrs. Gould has received a written apology from a high-ranking Defense Department official. We continue to work on a regular basis with Mrs. Gould to seek an accounting on her husband. His case remains open."
Kathy Borah Duez says she has managed to gather more information through her own private archival research than she has found in DPMO's case file on her brother. "Basically, I've been able to locate more documents than they have. It's frustrating," she says. "We spend a lot of time and money following this, but what else can we do? Give up? You just can't do that."
Pat Service, whose father-in-law, Capt. Samuel "Doug" Service, was declared missing over the Sea of Japan in June 1952, also has managed to obtain information DPMO doesn't have. It took her family 40 years to learn that her father-in-law's B-29 aircraft had been shot down by the Soviets. The family is still trying to learn if he was captured. Service says she sent DPMO a copy of a statement by a search and rescue crew member who reported seeing Service's plane afloat after the incident. When DPMO staffers lost the report, she sent it again, and then again.
"They are so disorganized. I had to send it seven different times," she says.
It's experiences like those that have destroyed faith in DPMO, says Santoli. "This is why we're calling for an entirely new office. Do you think we could trust these people to do search and rescue?"
One of the most contentious issues for family members and analysts is how DPMO determines what information is reliable and what is not. For years, the Defense Department has maintained that no Americans were left behind after the Vietnam War and more recently that no American prisoners were taken to the former Soviet Union during the Cold War (including the Korean and Vietnam Wars). DPMO has continued to maintain that stance.
But many former Defense officials and analysts believe there is plenty of evidence to the contrary. And they believe that by taking a hard line against the possibility, DPMO is only adding fuel to conspiracy theories.
"These people [at DPMO] don't understand what evidence is," says retired Col. William LeGro, the former executive secretary for the U.S. side of the U.S.-Russian Joint Commission on POW/MIAs. "There is a substantial body of evidence that prisoners were taken from Korea to the Soviet Union and that prisoners were held back by the Vietnamese. Whether you accept that as proof is another matter. That's what juries are for," he says.
It's simply not true that there's no evidence that Korea and Vietnam-era prisoners were left behind, says another former analyst with Task Force Russia. When the task force started to conclude that some POWs and MIAs may have been left behind, the analyst says, it began butting heads with DoD.
Task Force Russia analysts videotaped interviews with former Russian and Chinese officials and Soviet citizens who were imprisoned in the Soviet gulag system in the 1950s. The interviews provided a chain of testimonial evidence that indicated American POWs were transferred to Soviet prisons during the Korean War. But after the video was released to some family members and Russian coworkers on the task force, a senior Defense official forbade Task Force Russia from videotaping any more interviews, the former analyst says.
"Frankly, I think it was too compelling and they didn't want that record of these interviews," he said. In August 1993, just as Task Force Russia was being absorbed into DPMO, it produced a 77-page report titled "The Transfer of U.S. Korean War POWs to the Soviet Union." The report concludes that selected U.S. Korean War POWs were probably transferred to the Soviet Union as part of a secret program to exploit and counter the United States' advanced aircraft technologies.
"The range of eyewitness testimony as to the presence of U.S. Korean War POWs in the gulag is so broad and convincing that we cannot dismiss it," the report concluded.
But DPMO has all but dismissed the report. "There is no evidence to support that U.S. servicemen were taken to the Soviet Union," Wold says. A DPMO "fact sheet" says, "The study represents circumstantial evidence and subjective opinion. . . . Because [it] constitutes a fact-finding initiative rather than proven fact, the reader is apt to misconstrue the intent of the analysis."
Paul Cole, a former analyst with RAND Corp. whose research provided much of the basis for Task Force Russia's report, says, "There's no doubt about it, they took our guys." Cole believes DPMO's stance on the issue is dictated by political concerns. "I was told [by a senior Defense official], and this is a direct quote, 'At the end of this effort, Yeltsin will look good,' " he says.
DPMO concluded some former gulag sources were not reliable because they had been in the prison system and could have a bias against the government. "Using that criterion, you would have to disregard Alexander Solzhenitsyn if he came forward," the former analyst said.
New information has shown some of Cole's conclusions to be invalid, Wold said in an interview. When asked for examples of such new information, DPMO provided three typewritten pages illustrating ways in which they have used Cole's research to seek more information, with varying degrees of success. None of the examples showed any errors in Cole's research.
Truth and Fiction
For years, the Defense Department's POW/MIA efforts have been labeled by critics as beset with a mindset to debunk any notion that Americans were left alive overseas or might still be alive.
Charles Trowbridge, DPMO's director of Research and Analysis, says some of that criticism derives from the emotional nature of the issue. "The families understandably want answers and it's tough getting those sometimes. Also, the facts aren't something some people want to hear. This is a very emotional issue and emotions drive a lot. You have to be absolutely flawless and speak to the facts alone."
DPMO receives countless tips and information that it follows up with a limited staff. Much of the information leads to dead ends. For example, since 1982, the Defense Department has received nearly 9,000 "dog tag" reports. In such reports, a source, usually a Vietnam resident, believes he or she possesses remains of one or more Americans. As proof, they offer information, such as dog tag tracings, photographs or military identification cards.
Out of more than 8,300 names reported to the Defense Department through these reports, 94 percent are of servicemen who returned alive during their tours of duty; another 4 percent turn out to be servicemen killed in Southeast Asia whose bodies were recovered. Only 2 percent of such reports relate to missing Americans. Many of these "sources" incorrectly believe they will be compensated for their information or will receive help relocating to the United States, DPMO officials say.
There also have been numerous scams by Americans and foreigners who peddle misinformation, keeping hope alive where there may be no reason for it.
Malcolm McConnell, a former foreign service officer who chronicles the history of the POW/MIA issue as it pertains to Southeast Asia in his 1995 investigative book "Inside Hanoi's Secret Archives," detailed many of these scams. He does not believe DPMO or its predecessor organizations set out to deliberately debunk reliable evidence.
At the end of the Vietnam War, DoD didn't have the resources to sort through the enormous amount of data available on POWs and MIAs. That fact, coupled with the sometimes outrageous claims of POW/MIA activists and the political rhetoric of several administrations, made it difficult for the individuals charged with accounting for missing Americans, McConnell says.
Bill Bell, former chief of the now disbanded U.S. Office for POW/MIA affairs in Hanoi, is a long-time critic of the Defense Department's handling of POW/MIA affairs. But he doesn't believe analysts deliberately set out to disprove valid information.
"The criticism is not quite fair," Bell says. "DPMO is hamstrung. . . . There are some good people there and there was an effort to bring in new people with a fresh outlook. But ultimately, it is an office of bureaucrats. There is only so much they can do."