Why Has John McCain Blocked Info on MIAs?
In a personal briefing in 1992, high-level CIA officials told me privately that as it became more and more difficult for either government to admit that it knew from the start about the unacknowledged prisoners, those prisoners became not only useless as bargaining chips but also 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 has convinced me that it is not likely that more than a few--if any--are alive in captivity today. (That CIA briefing was conducted "off the record," but because the evidence from my 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 constituency for the missing men other than their families and some veterans' groups, very few Americans are aware of McCain's role not only in keeping the subject out of public view but in denying the existence of abandoned POWs. That is because McCain has hardly been alone in this hide-the-scandal campaign. The Arizona senator 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, among many others (including Dick Cheney, who was George H.W. Bush's defense secretary).
An early and critical attempt by McCain to conceal evidence involved 1990 legislation called the Truth bill, which started in the House. A brief and simple document, the bill would have compelled complete transparency about prisoners and missing men. Its core sentence said that the "head of each department or agency which holds or receives any records and information, including 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 by McCain), the bill went nowhere. Reintroduced the following year, it again disappeared. But a few months later a new measure, the McCain bill, suddenly appeared. It created a bureaucratic maze from which only a fraction of the documents could emerge--only the records that revealed no POW secrets. The McCain bill became law in 1991 and remains so today.
McCain was also instrumental in amending the Missing Service Personnel Act, which was strengthened in 1995 by POW advocates to include criminal penalties against "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." 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 report the incidents to the Pentagon.
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 has been woven together by unscrupulous deceivers to create an insidious and unpatriotic myth. He calls it the work of 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." Family members who have personally pressed McCain to end the secrecy have been treated to his legendary temper. 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.
The only explanation McCain has ever offered for his leadership on legislation that seals POW information 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.
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. 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 a school and other civilian targets. The Pentagon has copies of the confessions but will not release them. Also, no outsider I know of has ever seen a nonredacted copy of McCain's debriefing when he returned from captivity, which is classified but can be made public by McCain.
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 propaganda value (his high-ranking father, Rear Adm. John S. McCain II, was then the commander of US forces in the Pacific). 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. 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."
McCain still didn't know the answer when his father died in 1981. He got his answer eighteen years later. In his 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."
Does this hint at explanations for McCain's efforts to bury information about prisoners or other disturbing pieces of the Vietnam War? Does he suppress POW information because its surfacing rekindles his feelings of shame? On this subject, all I have are questions. But even without answers to what may be hidden in the recesses of someone'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.