Following the Vietnam War, the issue of whether American servicemen had been left behind in prison camps was an often raised–and hotly debated–subject in political circles. Inspiring everything from popular action films, to books suggesting conspiracy theories and coverups, the issue came to a head in the 1990s with the formation of a Senate Select Committee, headed by John Kerry, which sought to put to rest the question of whether there had been prisoners of war left missing in action.
Upon review of the available data, Kerry, a veteran himself, had stated that there simply was no credible evidence to support the idea that Americans had been left behind following the conflict. However, U.S. Senator John McCain, having actually been a POW himself and kept at the famous “Hanoi Hilton” in Northern Vietnam, was also on the committee, and underwent heavy criticism at times for what appeared to be an effort to prevent the release of information about captives held overseas. Having been held prisoner himself, many could not fathom why McCain would show such resistance to the public release of POW/MIA information, suggesting the possibility, according to some, that questions remained about his own time held prisoner there.
It is true that in various POW/MIA circles, it has long been maintained that McCain may have actually been more forthcoming with facts during his period as a captive than has been popularly reported. Critics have compared this to willing collaboration with the enemy, similar to allegations made in the controversial story of Bobby Garwood, who was purportedly seen fighting with Vietcong forces.
Despite the stonewalling alleged against McCain, Kerry, and the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs, there have been other members of Congress who have remained vocal on the issue, such as former New York Congressman John Leboutillier, who has gone on record stating that he, along with others, had been briefed on the issue, and that there was no doubt that American servicemen had remained behind.
This brings us to the compelling testimony offered by Eric Haney in his book, Inside Delta Force: The Story of America’s Elite Counterterrorist Unit. Described as the U.S. Army’s most elite top-secret strike force, 1st Special Forces Operational Detachment-D is an elite counterterrorism group within the U.S. Military, of which Haney, author of the book, is considered one of the founding members. In the book, Haney briefly describes the POW/MIA issue, and reveals that there had, in fact, been a plan underway for Delta Force to rescue any exiting POWs still being held in Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, or other regions nearby.
It should be noted here that, if there was indeed a plan to carry out this mission, it would presumably have been based on intelligence that supported the notion that there were, in fact, still POWs being held somewhere. This is in agreement with the testimony provided by LeBoutillier and others who have maintained that intelligence agencies had information that supported this, at least up until as recently as the 1980s.
In Haney’s book, he describes the rescue operation, and it’s two failed attempts, as a result of unwanted press attention the operations indirectly received. One might ask here, if such an operation were being carried out secretly by the U.S. Military, how then would it receive unwanted press? Haney tells that immediately in coincidence with Delta Force’s own plans for operation, Bo Gritz, a former Special Forces operative himself, had been positioned in the region, and had held televised press conferences announcing his own private operations intended to rescue the POWs, which thus compromised Delta Force’s operations. This happened not once, but on two separate occasions. Had Gritz merely exhibited terribly good luck at inadvertently thwarting a military operation that coincided with his own hobby of publicizing his attempts to rescue POWs, or was there something more to the equation?
Haney has a slightly different take on the story, which takes us all the way back to the end of the Vietnam War, and the subsequent Watergate scandal, which may have precipitated silence and miscommunication on the POW/MIA issue:
This is what I came to believe happened: In it’s hurried desire to conclude the treaty ending the war with Vietnam, the Nixon administration took the best, most expedient deal they could get and came back from Paris in 1973 declaring we had achieved”peace with honor.”
The enemies knew that we knew they were still holding prisoners, and they regarded this is the trump card to be used in later negotiations over the payment of reparations. (Why not? They had use the same ploy successfully on the French two decades before.)… But then came Watergate. And when the Nixon administration imploded, there were no players left the Vietnamese could use the POW card on.
Furthermore, by that time the American public was so sick of the war they didn’t want to hear about anything having to do with Vietnam. The country desperately wanted to forget it. And the politicos who had condemned American prisoners for a living death were equally desperate to forget the foul, dishonorable thing they had done.
So if it had come to light just eight years after we left Vietnam that American prisoners had been left behind for the sake of political expediency—well, the effect would have been devastating to a number of careers and reputations. And at the highest levels of power, nothing is more important than those two things: careers and reputations.
So the effort to rescue those prisoners had to be squashed at all costs. It was imperative.
It is my personal and professional opinion that the CIA was the lead agency in wielding its power to thwart any recovery operations. Among other considerations, it is the only entity with sufficient contacts to do so. The first pressure to kill the operation was brought to bear against senior military commanders who knew about it, so the military intelligence collection effort was called off—but the cat was already out of the bag.
This is both interesting, and tragic, as Haney suggests that Gritz was perhaps manipulated in such a way as to inadvertently thwart Delta Force’s operations to rescue the POWs… and in doing so, prevent the public from knowing (by virtue of their rescue) that remaining POWs had ever really been kept prisoner at all.
For some, the issue over whether POWs were kept is far from merely hypothetical, and while politically it as remained a divided topic, what are we to make of a former Special Forced operative who says he and his team had intended to go in for the rescue, only to be kept from being able to do so… and further implying he thought the CIA was behind it all? It seems that there may indeed be more to this story than many have considered, and certainly more than the U.S. Government has been willing to disclose and be held accountable for.