Commentary Magazine

Why POW Families are Suing the Pentagon

AP Photo/Ronen Zilberman

I’ve written here from time to time about the families of Korean War POWs whose loved ones were transferred to China after capture but never returned despite confirmation that they were alive in Chinese custody.

In short, the government has been keeping files more than 60-years-old from the POW/MIA families, along with more recent intelligence on the survival of U.S. POWs take during the Korean War and through the Cold War.

The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) remains leaderless more than a year after its former head Michael Linnington abruptly resigned. Linnington previously promised families he would stay ten years to get the job done, but he voided his word to the families to take a position with the Wounded Warrior Project.

Both the DPAA and the Pentagon have botched negotiations with China. In 2008, the Pentagon paid more than $100,000 to Beijing for its archival assistance. China took the money, but Chinese leaders subsequently refused to make the identified files accessible. Russia, too, refuses to release its KGB/GRU files. The Pentagon has failed to follow up even on its own leads regarding American POWs reportedly held by the Soviets, and its investigative efforts now languish. Neither Secretaries of State Hillary Clinton nor John Kerry had much interest in the POW issue. Rex Tillerson has yet to touch it.

It is for these reasons—and especially recent DPAA and Pentagon bungling—family members representing POW/MIAs from the Korean and broader Cold Wars are today announcing a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit to force the release of classified records from the 1950s. The families will also ask President Trump and Congress to pressure Moscow and Beijing to release records, and o revamp DPAA which has, to put it mildly, been ineffective.

“We’ve run out of patience and we’re running out of time,” said Bob Moore, whose brother, Capt. Harry Moore, was shot down over North Korea in 1951. Former Soviet officials and some declassified intelligence reports acknowledge Capt. Moore’s transfer to the Soviet Union, but not his ultimate fate.

Mark S. Zaid, the attorney handling the litigation, added, “It is astonishing the U.S. government is still keeping information classified on these lost heroes, from intelligence documents withheld as Top Secret just this year to operational files from the 1950s.”

He is right. President Trump and Defense Secretary Mattis should demand that all U.S. files relating to the POWs held by the Defense Department broadly, the National Security Agency, the U.S. Air Force, the Defense Intelligence Agency, the Central Intelligence Agency, the National Archives, and the Department of State be immediately declassified. There simply is no reason why documents from the 1950s and 1960s should remain classified today. If China or Russia are embarrassed by the results, so be it.

DPAA languished under its previous leadership. It leadership treated it as a throw-away, stepping stone post. That must end. Trump and Mattis should name a respected leader to champion the resolution of these cases. Unlike other postings in the Pentagon and State Department, the DPAA should not be the subject of partisan or internecine battles. Doing right for those who sacrificed so much should be an issue on which everyone on the policy spectrum can agree and provides a rare opportunity for the White House and Congress to act with unanimity.

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