The friction has typically been over medical benefits and expanding the GI Bill, but McCain also has a dirty little secret when it comes to POWs and MIAs.
While he has resorted to bullying journalists by playing the POW Card for years and not just in this presidential election year, his efforts to help the Pentagon hide important information about fellow POWs who unlike him did not return home is shameful.
Well, the lid is about to be blown off of that secret.
Veteran journalist and Southeast Asia hand Sydney Schanberg, author of The Killing Fields, has written "McCain and the POW Cover-Up," a copiously documented 9,000-word story appearing in the October issue of The Nation.
First some background: At the official end of the Vietnam War in 1975, some 2,583 Americans still were missing. While the Pentagon has ostensibly sought to account for these POWs and white-on-black POW/MIA flags and bumper stickers remain ubiquitous some three-plus decades on, the real story is shocking.
While the remains of about 450 POWs who died in Vietnam proper have been repatriated as relations between the U.S. and the Socialist Republic of Vietnam thawed, there has been little movement on POWs who went missing in Cambodia and Laos. A major reason is that these troopers were in those countries on secret missions that the Pentagon is covering up even 30-plus years after the end of hostilities. (Read the sidebar below for one example.)
The most troubling aspect of the POW saga are persistent reports that some are still alive and many more were left behind.
While I personally believe that very few -- if any -- may be alive and that POW groups have done survivors' families a grave disservice by stoking the fires of hope, I also believe that many were left behind. And were executed. Schanberg's assessment is the same.
* * * * *The crux of Schanberg's expose is that throughout his Senate career, McCain has quietly sponsored and pushed into law prohibitions that keep the most revealing information about these POWs classified in an effort to close the books on one of the seamiest aspects of the Vietnam War.
Schanberg writes that this information:
"[I]ncludes thousands of official documents, radio intercepts, witness depositions, satellite photos of rescue symbols that pilots were trained to use, electronic messages from the ground containing the individual code numbers given to airmen, a rescue mission by a special forces unit that was aborted twice by Washington—and even sworn testimony by two Defense secretaries that 'men were left behind.' This imposing body of evidence suggests that a large number—the documents indicate probably hundreds—of the U.S. prisoners held by Vietnam were not returned when the peace treaty was signed in January 1973 and Hanoi released 591 men, among them Navy combat pilot John S. McCain."Among these documents are a transcript of McCain's own torture-forced confession at the Hanoi Hilton. A non-redacted copy has never been made public.
Documents found in Soviet archives after the fall of the Soviet Union reveal that by Hanoi's own admission it was holding 1,205 POWs at the time of McCain's release but planned keep many of them at war's end as leverage to ensure getting war reparations from Washington. No reparations were ever paid.
Schanberg writes that:
"For many reasons, including the absence of a political constituency for the missing men other than their families and some veterans' groups, very few Americans are aware of the POW story and of McCain's role in keeping it out of public view and denying the existence of abandoned POWs. That is because McCain has hardly been alone in his campaign to hide the scandal.McCain's efforts to help keep the lid on the POW secrets began in 1990 when he successfully led opposition in the House to what was called the "Truth Bill," which would have forced complete transparency about POWs and MIAs.
The Arizona Senator . . . has actually been following the lead of every White House since Richard Nixon's and thus of every CIA director, Pentagon chief and national security advisor, not to mention Dick Cheney, who was George H. W. Bush's defense secretary. Their biggest accomplice has been an indolent press, particularly in Washington."
The bill was reintroduced the following year and again died, but a few months later a new bill known as the "McCain Bill" suddenly appeared.
"By creating a bureaucratic maze from which only a fraction of the documents could emerge—only records that revealed no POW secrets—it turned The Truth Bill on its head. The McCain bill became law in 1991 and remains so today. So crushing to transparency are its provisions that it actually spells out for the Pentagon and other agencies several rationales, scenarios and justifications for not releasing any information at all—even about prisoners discovered alive in captivity."
"McCain was also instrumental in amending the Missing Service Personnel Act, which had been strengthened in 1995 by POW advocates to include criminal penalties, saying: 'Any government official who knowingly and willfully withholds from the file of a missing person any information relating to the disappearance or whereabouts and status of a missing person . . . ' A year later, in a closed House-Senate conference on an unrelated military bill, McCain, at the behest of the Pentagon, attached a crippling amendment to the act, stripping out its only enforcement teeth, the criminal penalties, and reducing the obligations of commanders in the field to speedily search for missing men and to report the incidents to the Pentagon."McCain had a helpmate in abetting the cover-up who is just as surprising as his own involvement: Decorated Vietnam War veteran and 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry, who in an Orwellian twist chaired a Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA Affairs in 1991 that was created because of pressure from families of the missing and Vietnam veteran organizations, but with an ample assist from committee member McCain became a key part of the debunking machine.
Schanberg writes that McCain has explained away his involvement in the cover-up by insisting:
"[A]gain and again that all the evidence—documents, witnesses, satellite photos, two Pentagon chiefs' sworn testimony, aborted rescue missions, ransom offers apparently scorned—has been woven together by unscrupulous deceivers to create an insidious and unpatriotic myth. He calls it the 'bizarre rantings of the MIA hobbyists.' He has regularly vilified those who keep trying to pry out classified documents as 'hoaxers,' 'charlatans,' 'conspiracy theorists' and 'dime-store Rambos'."McCain also has said that the release of information on POWs would only stir up fresh grief for their families.
This is cruely disingenuous as it is the rare POW family, and I have met and sat in the living rooms of many over the years, that no longer cares to find out what happened to their fathers or sons. In fact, I have never met a single one.
"This is far sadder than I imagined," the president of a national POW-MIA organization told me after reading this post.
* * * * *To try to understand what makes John McCain tick as Vietnam veteran and former POW is difficult if not impossible. To impunge his motives is a particularly slippery slope.
Of all my fellow Vietnam veteran friends, only a small handful have ever been forthcoming about their war experiences, and I can say with certainty that none -- and many have died because of physical or mental ailments as a direct result of their war experience -- have ever been at peace with that episode in their lives.
McCain was not a particularly good pilot. He was treated with some deference by his captors because both his father and grandfather were admirals. But it is beyond dispute that he was treated horribly. He never was given proper medical treatment for injuries suffered when his Navy fighter jet was shot down, was forced him to stand for long periods of time, put in stress positions, beaten and deprived of sleep.
It seems clear that he too has never been at peace.
As McCain has written in his memoirs, he felt enormous guilt over having been broken under torture. Schanberg suggests that he is haunted by these memories and has supported suppressing the POW information because releasing it would rekindle his feelings of shame.
Whether this also applies to McCain's flip-flopping on torture I know not, but the manner in which he has browbeat expert POW witnesses who do not share his views and some of his temper-tantrum interactions with POW families -- accounts of which I have heard first hand because of my own connection to Vietnam veteran groups -- yet again bring into question whether he is wrapped right and is fit to be commander in chief.
Expect Schanberg's story to bubble through the blogosphere and then make a too-short appearance in the mainstream media before sinking like a stone. That is unfortunate, but anything to do with Vietnam, let alone POWs and MIAs, is so yesterday.
* * * * *Excerpts from Schanberg's piece are available at The Nation website, while the entire article is available at The Nation Institute website. More information on POW-MIA issues can be found at the National Alliance of Families website.