Details on how former prisoner of war Sen. John S. McCain has waged a protracted campaign to deny the U.S. public access to key portions of the government’s prisoner of war and missing in action files.
Though he has become America’s most celebrated POW, the senator may have done more than almost anyone else in Washington to ensure that the full history of that devastating conflict may never be known.
McCain, whose Navy plane was shot down over Hanoi in 1967, was imprisoned for 5 1/2 years. His single-minded legislative effort to block access to decades-old POW/MIA records has baffled many of his congressional colleagues.
In his recent autobiography, the Arizona Republican, whose father and grandfather were admirals, acknowledged being treated leniently during his POW confinement. He also expressed guilt and a sense of disgrace for having broken under torture and given his captors a taped confession in which he admitted to being a war criminal.
However, many of McCain’s fellow POWs also broke under torture and McCain’s supporters view him as a hero for what he endured.
Critics, on the other hand, have speculated that McCain’s sense of mortification at his prison camp lapses was so severe that it haunts him still, making him fear the opening of government files that could reveal previously unpublished details from that era.
The withheld trove of classified POW/MIA records is believed by many to document how American POWs were knowingly left behind in Southeast Asia by U.S. political and military leaders who carried out America’s hurried 1973 withdrawal from the war. The files are also believed to show how the Pentagon and U.S. intelligence agencies systematically ignored, hid or destroyed information about sightings of missing American servicemen since that time. Government officials have denied both assertions.
During his tenure in Washington, McCain has caustically denounced those who have called for more aggressive investigations of Vietnam-era MIA sightings and POW controversies. Cooperating with the Pentagon and intelligence agencies, he has used his clout to legislate into secrecy literally thousands of POW/MIA documents that would otherwise have been declassified long ago.
McCain’s actions in this regard appear to be starkly at odds with the image of openness and candor he projected in his campaign for the Republican presidential nomination earlier this year.
The end of this month marks the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and the end of the war that so traumatized American society. McCain himself is making a visit to Vietnam, paid for by NBC television network, to retrace his own history there. As the world remembers that tumultuous time, the question of why a senator would work so hard to keep POW/MIA files a secret a quarter of century later seems all the more timely and poignant.