The POW issue was born during the Watergate scandal. Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger knew Hanoi was secretly keeping American prisoners, but in the spring of 1973, they were in no position to get a Democratic Congress to pay ransom to North Vietnam.

Watergate was exposed because two Washington Post reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, defied the unspoken agreement between media and government that remains in effect—in exchange for protecting government secrets, the press gets privileged access to official sources. That tacit pact is the single biggest reason the POW puzzle has never been solved.

My own experience provides a vivid—and exasperating—example of this incestuous relationship between the press and the powerful.

In October 1985, Rowland Evans and Robert Novak held their semi-annual Evans & Novak Political Forum in Washington, D.C. for their newsletter subscribers. Each of us—I had been a subscriber since 1974—paid $450 for a full day of talks from “D.C. political insiders.” The line-up featured Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, White House Chief of Staff Don Regan, New York Gov. Mario Cuomo, and President Reagan’s national security adviser, Robert McFarlane.

After the morning introduction, I walked up to Novak and asked him, “Is what is said in here today on the record?”

He smiled, shrugged his shoulders, and said, “You paid to attend this conference, and you are not a member of the media, so those press rules do not apply to you.”

I returned to my seat at a long table where I had a cassette tape recorder clearly visible on top of the white tablecloth. When McFarlane began talking, I turned on the recorder. In the Q&A period afterward, I asked McFarlane—a retired Marine who had been on Kissinger’s staff during the Nixon administration and had been secretly dispatched to negotiate with Hanoi for the remaining 600 POWs—“Do you believe there are still U.S. POWs held against their will in Vietnam and Laos?”

McFarlane took a long time before he began his answer: “I do think there has to be—have to be—live Americans there.” He paused. The room grew silent as we watched this clearly conflicted man struggle to continue. We knew we were hearing a rare unscripted answer. He began talking about the thousands of live sighting reports coming into the Pentagon and Defense Intelligence Agency from Vietnam and Laos. Of those Southeast Asians who claimed to have seen American POWs, McFarlane said, “They have no reason to lie, and they are telling things they have seen.”

A follow-up question centered on whether the U.S. government had done everything it could to pinpoint and recover these POWs. Admitting that it had not, he said, “And that’s bad, and that’s a failure.”

I gave the tape to Wall Street Journal reporter Bill Paul, who was based in New York. He listened to it and knew he had a big story in his hands. He called National Security Council spokeswoman Karna Small, who had attended McFarlane’s talk. She denied that McFarlane ever said the words we had heard from him that very day. Paul said, “But the Journal has a transcript.” Her reply: “The transcript is wrong.”

At that point Paul knew his story was even bigger—he had McFarlane’s spokeswoman lying about her boss’s answers just hours earlier. So he called her back and said, “The transcript is not wrong. In fact, we have it all on tape.”

Bingo!

She said, “I have to get back to you.”

Minutes later the Wall Street Journal’s D.C. bureau chief, Al Hunt, called Paul and took over the editing of the story. Meanwhile, Evans and Novak tracked me down and accused me of violating protocol by exposing “off-the-record remarks by McFarlane.” They had suddenly forgotten that I specifically asked Novak whether the session was on or off the record.

In other words, the media—Al Hunt and Rowland Evans and Robert Novak—banded together to protect McFarlane and their access to him at the expense of a dynamite story. A watered-down version eventually ran and garnered some national attention, but never the continual front-page coverage it deserved.

A few months later, at a private meeting of the House Special Task Force on POWs/MIAs, I delivered a talk about a recent report of POWs being held at a specific location in Laos. Rep. John McCain was sitting in the front row of the tiered hearing room. Until that day, he and I had always had a cordial relationship. But upon seeing me, he sneered and asked if I was “secretly taping this meeting, too?”

McCain should have been incensed that the national security adviser knew that U.S. POWs were still being held and that the press was suppressing the story. Instead he was furious at me for daring to reveal McFarlane’s statements.

The Vietnam War was brought to an end in large part by a healthy, skeptical, adversarial relationship between the media and government. Reporters’ suspicions that they were being deceived by military briefers every afternoon in Saigon at the Five O’Clock Follies were the precursor to serious critical coverage of the war. Yet somehow this skeptical media has always believed the very same Pentagon when it comes to POWs.

The incident from 1985 is but one example of many. In my 30 years fighting for the truth about the POWs knowingly abandoned by the Nixon administration, I have repeatedly witnessed an eager partnership between the officials who make national policy and the media that is supposed to cover them—not to cover-up for them. 
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John LeBoutillier (R-N.Y.) was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from 1981-1983, where he served on the House Foreign Affairs Committee and the Special House Task Force on U.S. POWs in SE Asia. He is the author of Vietnam Now: The Case for Normalizing Relations With Hanoi.

See also

Ron Unz: How I met the real John McCain

Sydney Schanberg: My four-decade fight to report the truth

Peter Richardson: Why small media breaks the big stories

Gareth Porter: The evidence doesn’t stack up.

Andrew J. Bacevich: Will Iraq be forgotten as well?

Alexander Cockburn: Sometimes conspiracy theories are true.

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