Tempers Flare in Senate as Leader of MIA Group Prods Cheney
WASHINGTON (AP) _ Four Republicans spent a good part of Thursday morning, politely trying to talk the Senate into investigating whether Americans are still held prisoner in Southeast Asia.
Then one of them suggested that Defense Secretary Dick Cheney might consider resigning.
That’s when everybody got mad.
Cheney has been basking in the glow of America’s Persian Gulf victory. And maybe just as important, he’s a well-liked former member of Congress.
″I think you have just destroyed a lot of the credibility of the people who are behind this by attacking Dick Cheney,″ Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, told former Rep. Bill Hendon, R-N.C., who had made the remark.
Hendon, now chairman of the Publicity Fund of POW Families, was joined in calling for the investigation by Sens. Bob Smith, R-N.H.; Charles Grassley, R- Iowa, and Hank Brown, R-Colo.
It was Hendon who said Cheney had been too quick to rule out the possibility of Americans still being held captive. He said the defense secretary should resign if he does not read the intelligence reports available on the subject.
″Dick Cheney ought to read all 6,500 of the intelligence reports or he ought to resign,″ Hendon said.
A Democrat, Sen. Dennis DeConcini of Arizona, was the first to come to Cheney’s defense.
″He can’t read all the intelligence reports on Desert Storm,″ said DeConcini.
Then Rules Committee Chairman Wendell Ford, D-Ky., who was presiding over the hearing, gave Hendon a homespun sermonette:
″My mother told me back when I was a small child that the tongue is the only edged tool that grows sharper with constant use,″ Ford said.
Hendon didn’t back down.
The call for an investigation is sponsored by Smith and has attracted 41 co-sponsors, about twice as many Republicans as Democrats.
It envisions a special Senate committee to do the investigating.
Smith says the Defense Department is too slow in processing intelligence data on missing Americans. He says it has an institutional bias against the idea that any of them are still alive and that too much of the information the Pentagon has is classified.
″If there are live Americans there, we need to get them and get them out,″ Smith said.
But Rules Committee members were skeptical. The Senate already has four committees with jurisdiction over the issue. Besides, Congress has already investigated it - seven times.
Stevens said all the testimony taken on the subject fills 29 volumes.
But Grassley said that’s all the more reason the Senate needs to launch another investigation.
″The mere fact that seven previous inquiries turned up nothing is the strongest case in point,″ Grassley said.
The issue of Americans being held prisoner from the Vietnam War has taken on new life since a photograph surfaced last week, purporting to show three men whose families say are being enslaved on a potato farm. The Defense Department has examined the photograph and says it is unable to determine whether the picture is a fake.
The department did say Thursday evening that the photograph has passed through the hands of known fabricators of MIA information in Cambodia.
Other pictures also have come to light.
Some relatives of Army Special Forces Capt. Donald Gene Carr, who was on a plane that apparently crashed in Laos in 1971, say he is shown smiling in a clear color photograph. The Pentagon says it has not analyzed that photograph because it has no copy of it.
″We would like the opportunity to follow up on it,″ said Pentagon spokesman Daniel Ginsberg.
Officials from the State Department were to meet with Vietnamese representatives late this week and next week in Hanoi, Laos and Thailand to ask for information on the photographs, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said on Thursday.
Vietnam’s ambassador to the United Nations, Trinh Xuan Lang, has said the photograph of the three men is ″a cruel fake″ and repeated that no U.S. prisoners remain in Vietnam.