WASHINGTON -- Senior Reagan administration officials believed in 1981 that about 100 U.S. POWs could have been left behind in Southeast Asia at the end of the Vietnam War, but efforts to rescue them were abandoned after a covert reconnaissance mission mounted by the CIA failed to find them, documents obtained by the Los Angeles Times show.
The belief that, contrary to official policy statements, U.S. prisoners were still being held in Southeast Asia was based in part on a satellite photograph of a Laotian prison camp that the Reagan administration received shortly after taking office in January 1981.
In recent closed-door testimony to the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs, a panel set up last year to investigate the fate of missing servicemen, former national security adviser Richard V. Allen said that he and President Reagan believed on the basis of the satellite imagery that American POWs could have been imprisoned at the camp.
The CIA organized a mission to investigate the camp but took so long to do it that the site was abandoned by the time the team got there, Mr. Allen said. He added that the fear of failure precluded the launching of another mission.
However, according to Mr. Allen's testimony, given in a June 23 deposition to committee investigators, the camp had "definitely" been inhabited in December 1980, when the photograph was taken. More significantly, he said, the CIA concluded that the ground in the prison courtyard bore the markings of a numerical code used by American POWs in Vietnam.
Unofficial accounts of the reconnaissance mission and the CIA's connection to it have appeared before in various forms. But Mr. Allen's confirmation added details about the mission to the camp at Nhom Marrot, in southern Laos, and the evidence that prompted Mr. Reagan to authorize it.