WASHINGTON -- As President Clinton moves toward recognition of Vietnam, administration officials and their allies are insisting that the POW-MIA issue should no longer be a barrier to normal relations between the two former enemies.
They say Vietnam's cooperation in joint field investigations has been excellent -- and would go even more smoothly if the two nations had full diplomatic relations.
They also say the most promising unresolved cases now number fewer than 100, and they point to Hanoi's recent release of documents pertaining to MIA cases.
But interviews with former leaders of U.S. military search teams, testimony from Pentagon officials and internal Defense Department reports raise doubts about these assertions, which are central to the imminent change in U.S. policy.
So far, this information has been either dismissed or ignored. It has also been overwhelmed by the feeling among the most visible Vietnam heroes that it is time to move on. Except among veterans' groups and families of MIAs, this view seems to have gained acceptance. In February, Mr. Clinton lifted the trade embargo against Vietnam without encountering public protest, and with important help from a Senate resolution in favor of the move.
Leading the charge was the man whose opinion probably carries the most weight in the Senate on the issue, Republican John McCain of Arizona, a former Navy pilot who spent 5 1/2 years as a prisoner of war in North Vietnam. Mr. McCain is expected to be at the president's side, figuratively if not literally, when Mr. Clinton announces his recognition of Vietnam, a step administration officials say is imminent.
"I think it's very important for us to recognize that the war is over," Mr. McCain said in May after meeting with Mr. Clinton. "What I think we need to do is look forward as a nation to the healing process."
Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, another decorated Vietnam vet, stood beside Mr. McCain that day and praised Vietnamese efforts at solving MIA cases.
"The material that's been turned over most recently adds to what is already the single most extensive and exhaustive accounting for missing in the history of all human warfare," he said.
Mr. Clinton, while unveiling a POW/MIA stamp on Memorial Day, also made a point of mentioning Vietnam's release of documents. But it is here, critics say, that Mr. Clinton -- as well as Mr. Kerry and Mr. McCain -- are on weaker ground.
The documents in question were released May 15 to a presidential delegation and consisted of 187 pages on seven MIA cases. A second release to a congressional delegation consisted of 100 more pages.
As recently as yesterday, administration officials touted these documents as proof of heightened Vietnamese cooperation. But internal assessments by the Pentagon POW/MIA office show they will be of little value in solving cases. Most of the documents report on previously unsuccessful searches by Vietnam.
The Pentagon assessment team wrote that, although it might prove possible to a develop a new lead or two from the material, "the information contained in the . . . documents will not result in the immediate resolution of any cases."
A week and a half ago, Rep. Robert K. Dornan, a conservative California Republican, held hearings on the POW/MIA issue and assembled administration policy-makers, including James W. Wold, who heads the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Office.
They were asked whether they believed the Vietnamese could solve "hundreds" of cases of missing Americans. The witnesses indicated they didn't believe so or didn't know.
The backdrop for this question was congressional testimony in 1979 by a masked former Vietnamese undertaker -- now in the federal witness protection program -- who said that he had processed the remains of more than 200 Americans and that he saw a warehouse with perhaps 200 more corpses.
In the ensuing years, 162 of the remains released by Vietnam showed evidence of having been stored, convincing Pentagon investigators and MIA families that such a warehouse existed, even though the Vietnamese deny it.
Citing this information, Mr. Dornan and Rep. James M. Talent, a Missouri Republican, sought the testimony of senior analysts with the Pentagon's POW/MIA Office.
One of those analysts, Gary Sydow, was asked whether any evidence received by the United States had changed the government's long-held position that Vietnam could clear up hundreds of cases -- and locate and return many remains -- if it so chose. Mr. Sydow replied that evidence provided by the "mortician" still was at the heart of the continued U.S. insistence for more answers -- and that the possibility Vietnam continues to withhold information cannot be ruled out.
"He was under oath -- he had to be honest," said Richard Childress, a former member of the White House National Security Council. "In other words, he completely contradicted what the policy guys had said."
White House officials say it's time to move forward and if the United States insists on remains the Vietnamese say they don't have -- and perhaps really do not have -- U.S.-Vietnam relations will be stalled at a time when the rest of the world has moved to recognize Vietnam.
Others fear that the Clinton administration's willingness to look past this issue may be a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, Hanoi won't release the remains now because it doesn't have to -- and to do so would risk embarrassment.
"When I was working on this issue, we knew, in fact, that they had fully stored remains, we knew they had documents to show us where other sites were, and we knew they could solve hundreds of cases," Mr. Childress said. "But the Clinton administration -- and the last part of the Bush administration -- has had this attitude of 'Let's just get this issue behind us.' "
Rep. Benjamin A. Gilman of New York, chairman of the House International Relations Committee, has scheduled hearings on the issue for Wednesday. "The administration is rewarding a former adversary despite their reneging on a promise to cooperate," he said yesterday.
Another witness at the Dornan hearings gave testimony that some of his fellow members on the subcommittee found equally disturbing. It came from Michael D. Janich, a former Army linguist who led field investigations until he resigned last year.
He told Congress that joint teams investigating MIA cases in Vietnam and Laos were pressured by their U.S. superiors to rush their work in order to move stalled cases from "active" to "inactive" status. In the process, he said, teams sometimes conducted shoddy, cursory investigations. Mr. Janich provided examples:
One of them, identified as Case 1648, involved two American soldiers who were on combat patrol in Thua Thien-Hue province when they were shot and presumed killed.
Previously, he said, the team would have scoured the grounds on foot and questioned villagers, hoping somebody had seen a recovered dog tag or set of bones, personal artifacts -- or perhaps a wounded GI who was taken prisoner.
Instead, according to the report, the team "conducted an aerial reconnaissance flight over the last known location of Case 1648." The flight was conducted at 200 feet in a mountainous area of dense undergrowth, the report stated. Yet this case was moved off the active file.
"This is hardly what I would consider a thorough and responsible investigative effort or a means of achieving the fullest possible accounting," Mr. Janich said.
The Pentagon POW/MIA office, responding in writing to questions, said yesterday: "Cases are re-investigated as many times as is needed, often as many as 6 or 7 times."
Mr. Janich also questioned the most basic premise of current U.S. policy toward Vietnam -- that Vietnam is providing "excellent" cooperation. He provided several examples of obstructionist behavior, including cases in which the Vietnamese team leaders yelled at the Americans, brandished weapons at them, refused to show them places they wanted to see or silenced would-be witnesses.
"I experienced and reported in detail to my superiors regular occurrences of witness coaching, prompting and intimidation by my Vietnamese counterparts," Mr. Janich said. "I also experienced and reported the intentional withholding of information and documents by Vietnamese officials and witnesses and levels of cooperation so low that they would more properly be considered obstructions."
Asked about this, Beverly Baker, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said: "We are getting cooperation from the government. Some people feel that cooperation isn't enough, but since 1992, we've had 66 remains returned."
The number of remains actually certified as American and identified at the military lab in Hawaii is lower than that, however, and until now cases have not been counted as resolved until that identification process is over. To MIA family groups, this kind of exaggeration shows the administration's inclination to put a better face on things than might be warranted.
"The number, if you include Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos, is 41, not 66," said Ann Griffiths Mills, executive director of the National League of POW/MIA Families. "And there have been only eight since the lifting of the embargo, an act that was supposed to guarantee all this great cooperation."
"Look, if they are intent on granting recognition for other reasons, then they ought to just do it," she added. "But don't lie about it."
Privately, White House officials say that they just don't know if the warehouse described in 1979 ever existed, and that even if it does, the Vietnamese aren't going to admit to it now, after denying its existence all these years.
They also argue that logic suggests that if such a cache of American bodies were still around in 1991, that would have been the time to release it, when President George Bush seemed close to recognizing Vietnam.