Reed Irvine, Editor
Joseph C. Goulden,
Here's a bombshell story you haven't seen in the national media.
A highly-decorated Army Special Forces officer, now retired and running a POW search network from Bangkok, tells us that the Vietnamese army is itching to release 572 Americans, now being held in Laos camps.
The Vietnamese military, according to Major Mark W. Smith, fears being held responsible for war crimes should it kill the men, as the Hanoi politburo is urging. Vietnam knows the Clinton Administration is on the brink of restoring full trade and diplomatic relations. The POWs, held for two decades as "bargaining chips" and "trophies of war", are now being dumped into Laos, under the care of three Vietnamese divisions, which prop up the puppet government there. It is these divisions which control the POWs - and wish to get rid of them, according to Smith. Smith made his revelation on July 13, 1994 on the AIM TV show "The Other Side Of The Store".He formerly headed a top-secret Special Forces unit based in South Korea, that in the early 1980's was tasked to search for American MIAs in Southeast Asia.
We met Smith when he was in Washington to speak at the annual conference of the National Alliance of Families, headed by Dolores Alfond of Bellevue, Washington. Her brother is an MIA. Both Smith and Alfond appeared on our TV show. Smith's efforts seemed about to bear fruit in 1983, when he was promised the release of three Americans. Then superior officials whom he cannot identify intervened, and he was abruptly stripped of his assignment and forced out of the army on trumped-up charges. Disgusted, he moved to Bangkok, Thailand in 1985 and has been trying to do on his own, what his government refuses to attempt.
He is working chiefly through a network of agents he developed while with the army - members of the Laotian resistance, who are fighting their country's communist government, Thai Special Forces and other persons who travel in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
After eliciting Smith's distinguished military background, Reed Irvine asked, "You are now in touch with the Vietnamese units in Laos?" Smith said he was in contact with three Vietnamese divisions.
"And they have how many live American POWs under their control?" Irvine asked.
"Five hundred seventy-two," Smith replied, "as of the first of this year."
At the same time, the American government says there are none.
"This is shocking!" Irvine exclaimed.
The document that Harvard researcher Stephen Morris obtained from Soviet archives last year, spoke of 1,205 Americans being held in Vietnam in late 1972, leaving some 700 unaccounted for, when all prisoners were supposedly released the following Spring. Coupled with the approximately 300 abandoned in Laos, this means the total held could be 1,000. We don't know how many POWs have survived life in the harsh prison camps of Laos and Vietnam since 1972.
"Dumping POWs in Laos"
How much of Major Smith's information is authentic? POW/MIA activists give him high marks, and his distinguished military credentials are unchallengeable. Our friends at Soldier of Fortune magazine in Colorado, who have a keen eye for POW shysters, describe Smith as a "straight operator" whose South Asian sources seem sound. And as Dolores Alfond says, unlike many charlatans who prey upon MIA families, "Mark Smith doesn't go around with a little tin cup asking for money."
Smith said that the actual number of men still being held captive is unknown since the Vietnamese continue to move prisoners into Laos, and that the 572 figure might include persons formerly being held in Vietnam. He summarized the situation: "Now Vietnam is moving towards diplomatic relations [with Washington]. The gun is away from their head, and little Laos, which we bombed, and the Vietnamese occupied, is again being stuck. They are dumping the POWs into Laos." Smith said he has obtained the names of many of these men through his network of agents in Laos, especially members of the Laotian resistance.
IRVINE: What is the prospect of getting these people freed?
SMITH: Unlikely as this seems, and I will predict this to you on your show, that the North Vietnamese army - that we fought for so many years, [and now] finds itself between the rock and the hard place, between two governments - is going to be the prime mover in returning these men to their families.
IRVINE: Is the U.S. government going to let these dead men' return, or is it going to be too embarrassing to our government?
SMITH: They are going to try to stop it, but the problem is I think we have a way to do that ... I think that they are going to be placed in the hands of people in Asia who know that this is a terrible thing, and that the United States of America will never be able to stand up to anybody as long as this egg is on its face over the Vietnam War. They are going to force the United States to take these people back.
Smith does not think that any money would be involved; he does not agree with the idea of paying "rewards", but if necessary "I will pay them." As to the time frame, Smith said the release could happen "any time now". Due to the sensitivity of the prospective return, Smith declined to be specific about any details.
But at the National Alliance conference, he expanded on the political turmoil in Vietnam. He said that reports he has received from his network of sources are that a rift has developed between the Vietnamese government and its military.
The Vietnamese, in Oriental fashion, kept the POWs as "spoils of war ... trinkets of ego." He told of one American, now demented, who was kept chained to a post in a village for the amusement of residents.
But now that Hanoi wants normalization of relations with the U.S., the continued holding of POWs is no longer politically acceptable.
By Smith's account, "The army was told to get rid of the American prisoners. "But the military refused to carry out the order, fearing that they might ultimately be held accountable for murder. The prosecution of ex-East German leader Walter Honnecker was fresh in their minds, Smith noted. What Smith has urged is that the Clinton Administration take advantage of the split between officials and the generals, and offer the latter, the chance to be the "good guys". His letters to the White House have gone unanswered.
"Think of it," he said at the National Alliance meeting. "Five-year-old boys and girls can get an answer when they write to Clinton. But Bill Clinton gives me the finger - my letters come back with that postal finger sticker, "Return To Sender".
WHERE ARE THE MEDIA?
Here is a prime instance where our media should be doing their job and following up on the plethora of leads provided by Smith. Yet his revelation is another in a series of POW stories ignored by our mainstream media. His appearances in Washington drew no media attention. Virtually every major publication and network in the country can be faulted for giving short shrift to the subject. But one reporter who especially galls us is Dan Rather, the co-anchor of the "CBS Evening News." In a macho strut through the pages of National Review last April, Rather excoriated President Clinton for breaking his campaign promise not to life the trade embargo on Vietnam until there was a good-faith accounting of Americans still missing-in-action. Rather called the decision "ill-advised" and scoffed at Clinton's claim it would encourage Hanoi to give the true story of what happened to the missing men.
"It was designed to make money," Rather wrote.
"It was a trade initiative, plain and simple. The people least likely to mistake it for anything else were the families of America's missing."
Rather continued, "This reporter wonders, did it occur to President Clinton that night, February 3, to go to the Wall?"
His reference, of course, was to the Vietnam Memorial, where some 58,000 names are carved into stone.
Rather's question invited us to ask one of our own: "These media critics wonder, did it occur to Dan Rather to examine his own record - and that of CBS News - on behalf of the Vietnam missing?"
He won't like our answer.
Rather's own record was abysmal.
Belatedly lamenting Clinton's decision in a conservative magazine doesn't make up for his inattention to the MIAs during the months when he and CBS could have had an impact on the debate.
The performance of Rather and CBS is archetypical of the way our mainstream media buried the POW story for decades.
In all of 1993, the year preceding Clinton's decision on reducing trade strictures, "CBS Evening News" did only one story of substance on the Vietnam missing. This was on April 12, and even this was not what journalists call an "initiative story" involving independent work by CBS News.
CBS simply reported on Harvard researcher Stephen Morris's discovering, in Moscow archives, a Soviet Intelligence report on a speech by North Vietnamese General Tran Van Quang.
In September 1992, his speech stated that 1,205 Americans were being held in North Vietnam prisons, rather than the 368 that Hanoi negotiators had listed during the Paris Peace talks.
The document said the prisoners would be used as bargaining chips for postwar repatriations.
The CBS report ran two minutes and eleven seconds.
The next evening Rather gave 20 seconds to Hanoi's denial of the authenticity of the document.
And on April 18, there was another brief report on General John Vessey's going to Hanoi to investigate the document.
The next time Dan Rather did anything about the Vietnam MIAs was on February 3 of this year, when he and the rest of the media reported Clinton's lifting of the trade embargo.
Throughout 1993, in the AIM report, our column, our radio commentaries and our TV show in December, we argued that the Clinton Administration was building up to a sellout of the Vietnam missing - unless the mainstream media gave serious attention to the issue.
Dan Rather and the "CBS Evening News" were among those who wouldn't listen, and who would not report disturbing evidence about MIAs.
Rather, did not show to CBS viewers the reconnaissance photos revealing "authenticator numbers" matching those assigned to missing U.S. pilots, which were scratched into the ground outside a known Vietnam prison. They were taken as recently as June 1992, indicating American airmen were still alive.
Rather, did not track down Le Dinh, a defected North Vietnamese intelligence officer, who told American debriefers in 1978 that more than 700 POWs were being held as a "strategic reserve".
Le Dinh's story confirmed the authenticity of the Morris document.
Had Le Dinh been interviewed on national television, public outrage could have kept the Clinton Administration from accepting Hanoi's disavowal of the report.
Rather did not interview the investigators for the Kerry Committee who developed hard evidence that hundreds of POWs had been abandoned in Vietnam, and who refused to go along with the Senate coverup of the tragedy.
Had he done so, the American people would have learned of a scandal more far-reaching than Watergate or Whitewater.
These men were readily available to the media; one of them Garnett "Bill" Bell, appeared on AIM's TV show, "The Other Side of The Story", on December 15.
A SOLDIER'S STORY
Dan Rather and other media people have missed a big story by not telling the remarkable odyssey of Major Mark Smith, from career soldier to free-lance foreign operative. Smith had the opportunity to tell his story for the first time on the AIM television show.
Smith is a "mustang", an officer who came from the enlisted ranks.
He enlisted in the army in 1963, at age 17, and first went to Vietnam in 1965 as an infantryman.
There he won his sergeant's stripes (and the first of four purple hearts), and a battlefield commission as a lieutenant in 1968 for bravery.
He had subsequent assignments in Laos and Cambodia, commanding Ranger and Provincial Reconnaissance Units.
During a battle in Loc Ninh Province in 1972, men fighting under Smith were credited with destroying most of a North Vietnamese division, including a number of T-54 tanks.
Smith was captured in Cambodia in 1972 and was held in chains for ten months until his release in 1973.
He spent six months in Letterman Army Hospital in California, being treated for malaria and six bullet and 32 shrapnel wounds.
Smith spent the next decade as a Special Forces officer.
His keen interest in the MIA/POW issue began in 1981, when he joined the Special Forces Detachment-Korea (SFD-K).
This unit was part of a sensitive worldwide intelligence operation created the first years of the Reagan Administration by retired General Richard G. Stilwell, and expert in unconventional warfare who served as deputy under-secretary of defense from 1981-85.
Stilwell had extensive experience in the Far East, including a stint with the CIA, and command of U.S. forces in South Korea.
Stilwell's primary contribution to American intelligence during the 1980's was the idea of using the presence of conventional American forces, in Asia and elsewhere, as a cover for covert operatives who fell outside the Congressional oversight procedures, which hamstrung the CIA.
The Army Special Forces was one of the units tapped for these secret assignments.
According to Smith, SFD-K had a number of missions: to train infiltration agents; to report on the political situation in allied armies; and to oversee counter terrorism teams with the South Koreans.
These assignments, he said, gave the SFD-K the cover to gather information on Americans missing in Southeast Asia, with the ultimate goal of rescuing them.
SFD-K was tasked for the latter mission by the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA).
By Smith's account, the Pentagon in those years seemed serious about obtaining the release of missing Americans.
Agents he dispatched from South Korea, collected firm intelligence on the whereabouts of many MIAs.
In 1984, information he gathered with the aid of the Thai Army Special Forces, resulted in a firm offer from the North Vietnamese to release three American POWs, as well as a number of Asian allies.
Smith and his immediate superior, Lieutenant Colonel Robert Howard, asked for authorization to carry out the mission.
Instead, Howard was relieved of his command, and Smith and detachment members were forbidden to do any further operations outside of South Korea.
The order ended any chance of the three Americans being released.
In short order, Smith found himself and other members of the SFD-K, under investigation for financial malfeasance; although cleared of the false charges, he was given 24 hours to resign from the Army. According to Smith, the dispute resulted in Stilwell being forced to leave his Pentagon post. (Stilwell died in 1991; Smith's contention cannot be confirmed).
In September 1985, Smith and another SFD-K member, SFC Melvin McIntyre, sued President Reagan, demanding that he pursue release of the POWs.
The suit went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which upheld lower court findings that the issue was "political" and beyond the purview of the justice system.
"Pain in Their Hearts"
The evidence that Major Smith accumulated over the years, both from his own investigations and from government intelligence files, is disturbing.
We viewed a number of the live-sighting reporting and other evidence that Smith has put together.
One particularly horrifying example concerned a group of 112 American pilots who were being shuffled around Vietnam, long after the peace accords, and the supposed release of all POWs.
Persistent reports put them in a camp in Son Tay, Laos.
The trail began with a radio message which the National Security Agency (NSA) the code-breaking agency, intercepted on October 8, 1973, from the governor of Nghia Lo Province in North Vietnam to the Minister of Defense in Hanoi.......
"This confirms the transfer of 112 USA pilots from Lai Chau to the prison previously used for Thai and Vietnamese prisoners in Laos."
The message went on to say that all the pilots had been photographed, and that the pictures had been sent to the Defense Ministry for "registration".
As Smith notes, "this was not a refugee report, this was from a U.S. radio intercept."
The reference to the prison was a place named Son Tay.
Reports about the Son Tay prisoners continued for more than a decade"
In November 1973, NSA intercepted another message, this one from the governor of Son Tay Province, to the Defense Minister:
"112 USA prisoners now in prison in Son Tay."
The message then named the physician who was treating ten of the prisoners who were said to have "pain in their hearts and are not in a good way."
The governor asked for guidance on what to do.
On June 20, 1977, a U.S. intelligence report gave further confirmation. It stated, "General Khamtai, Lao Minister of National Defense [now president of Laos] maintains extensive highly classified records of Americans captured by the Pathet Lao and Vietnamese in Laos.
These records also provide details on the dispatch of captured pilots to POW camps at various locations in Northern Vietnam, including the Son Tay prison.
In 1984, a former operative of U.S. and South Vietnamese intelligence escaped from a Vietnamese prisoner camp through Laos into Thailand.
Major Smith interviewed him there, as did U.S. and Thai intelligence officers. Smith quoted him as reporting: "I saw the American POWs in many small camps during my nine years in prison. These were in North Vietnam and in Laos (as far south as Saravane and Savannakhet)."
The largest group was in the same prison with me and the other Vietnamese/Thai prisoners at Son Tay."
Since 1986, Smith has received numerous reports from Lao resistance fighters concerning the movement of U.S. and Thai POWs to various camps within Laos. The largest group, these sources tell Smith, came from the POW camp at Son Tay.
The Samoy School
Another astounding discovery made by Major Smith's agent network, was of a training school at Samoy, Laos; for students from the old Eastern Bloc and Cuba, that operation between 1980-88.
Until the Soviet Union and its empire collapsed, the school trained students from Cuba, Bulgaria, Albania, Romania and East Germany, how to pose as Americans, apparently in preparation for spy missions.
According to information developed by Smith, four captured U.S. Air Force officers taught at the school, in two-man teams that rotated every six months.
The "off-duty" pair is held at another prison camp in Saleo.
The four Americans were together only during the exchange, and they managed to get word to Smith through his agents that this would be the best time for a rescue operation.
Smith says he passed this information to Washington, and that nothing was done with it.
He also maintains that the U.S. intelligence community has made no attempt to locate and interview former East European students at the school, even though some might now be willing to talk about their experiences.
Live Sightings Ignored
The Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), which activists claimed has a "mind set to debunk" stories about surviving POWs, reflexively dismisses live-sighting reports as being the product of flimflam artists more interested in money than the truth.
Smith, however, has compiled, through personal interviews and other sources, a plethora of such reports from non-Americans with no monetary motive.
He supplied us with a long list.
Among the more striking:
A European, now living in Laos, who was confined to a Pathet Lao labor camp after the fighting ended, told Smith of a group of Americans working on a plantation in Southern Laos.
Smith states that he receives covert assurances from the Americans every three months that they remain alive - and that they want to come home.
A Taiwanese visiting Laos reported that the bus he was riding on was robbed by Montagnards and former Vietnamese Rangers led by two Americans.
Learning that a passenger was Taiwanese, one of the Americans said, "Tell the army that we are still here."
An Italian UN worker claimed to have turned away an American MIA in Phonm Penh, Cambodia, because "he was part of America's war and deserved to be left." as she later related to two European journalists interviewed by Smith.
Swedes working on a paper mill in North Vietnam passed a road gang of men, obviously prisoners, who began shouting that they were American POWs.
We asked Major Smith what could be done either by private groups or the U.S. government in order to get POWs released.
He urged exploitation of anti-communist guerrillas who are still active in Vietnam and Laos.
A silent war continues to rage in the Asian jungles, with tangled alliances; indeed, Smith said, certain Vietnamese and Pathet Lao commanders, have actually sought common cause with the guerrillas to oppose "old guard" communist leaders who dominate their countries.
Smith maintained that many of these fighters still have warm feelings towards the United States, and are willing to share what information that they have concerning Americans they have seen in hidden camps.
What is missing, he said, is any display of interest by officials in Washington.
Smith told of a monk who came out of the mountains to talk with him when he was gathering information on the Samoy school camp.
He said the monk asked, "How can a big country like yours leave these poor men in Samoy and Saleo?"
The monk continued that the men "long to come home."
Smith said, "I could give him no answer that made any sense to an Asian - or to anyone else."
We hereby make an offer to Dan Rather and any other journalist, who has the energy to pursue the astounding story related by Major Mark Smith:
Contact AIM, and we'll happily put you in touch with a man who won't let the POW issue die.
4455 Connecticut Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20008
Two important stories came out of the conference of the National Alliance of POW/MIA Families in Washington in mid-July, that were ignored by the media.
The most sensational is covered in this report.
We checked out Mark Smith before we invited him to appear on our TV show, and we are convinced he is on the level and may well be able to engineer the release of hundreds of live American POWs in the near future.
In our December-A 1993 AIM Report, we told you of intelligence officer Barry Toll, who recalls seeing a cable that he said was "seared in his memory" that 290 to 340 of our men in Laos would have to be abandoned.
Laos was of particular concern because our government had evidence that there were over 350 POW/MIAs in Laos, but it had not been able to get either numbers or names from the Pathet Lao.
They acknowledge holding POWs, but they released none.
Mark Smith says many of these men are still alive.
He has the names of many of them and says our government has declared all but one of them dead.
The number has been augmented by POWs recently transferred to Laos from Vietnam.
The other is about hundreds of photographs of American military personnel killed and captured in Vietnam, that were purchased by our government through an undercover agent two years ago.
The Pentagon classified these photos and didn't even reveal their existence, much less make them available to the families.
We have wasted millions of dollars exploring crash sites instead of demanding that the Vietnamese show us their records and produce the men.
NOTE: You can telephone AIM, At the following number(s):
Voice: (202) 364-4401
Fax: (202) 364-4098