WASHINGTON -- Three top Reagan administration officials responsible for tracking the cases of servicemen missing in Vietnam said yesterday that the government has known for nearly 20 years that some U.S. prisoners of war may have been alive in Indochina when troops were withdrawn in 1973.
But in testimony to the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs the three officials expressed doubts that any prisoners remained alive in captivity now, though some servicemen may have stayed behind of their own volition and could account for some if not all of the live sightings of people identified as Americans in recent years.
The United States lists 2,266 Americans as unaccounted-for from the Vietnam War. About half of these are known to have died, but their remains have not been recovered.
Of the rest, 100 to 135 fall into the category of prisoners who may have been alive in captivity in 1973, based on information about their last known whereabouts. It is this group that has become the focus of a new investigation into the issue of the missing.
The Reagan administration officials charged yesterday that the United States lost its best chance of finding out what happened to all unaccounted-for Americans by not pressing the issue forcefully in the years immediately following disengagement from Indochina.
"In the period when the trail was hot, when there should have been a full-court press, the effort was less, not more," Lt. Gen. Leonard H. Perroots, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency from 1985 to 1988, told the committee.
He was referring to the administrations of Presidents Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter. The others who testified yesterday were Richard T. Childress, a staff member on President Ronald Reagan's National Security Council, and Richard Armitage, a former assistant defense secretary.
In recent weeks, the Senate committee has been developing a fuller account of the government's handling of the missing servicemen.