The Truth at Last

How two walk-in intelligence sources paved the way for a major U.S.-Vietnamese breakthrough on POWs and MIAs, and likely diplomatic relations as well

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TOM CLANCY OR JOHN LE CARRE might hesitate at making credible fiction of this tale. Imagine that the Vietnamese government signs a contract with an American researcher to write a book on the Vietnam War, using secret archives that Hanoi has insisted for 20 years do not exist. Then suppose that the American volunteers this information to the Pentagon, which first rebuffs him, then takes him in, only to discover that the evidence represents a genuine breakthrough in the decades-long effort to identify Americans missing or captured in Vietnam.

This is exactly what has happened since Ted Schweitzer, 50, a U.N. worker and university librarian, informed Washington officials last fall that he had not only got permission to review these hidden archives, but had been given an office in Hanoi's central Museum of the People's Army of Vietnam to review them. U.S. intelligence had long believed the museum housed a major cache of meticulously maintained and documented accounts of missing American service personnel; now they had proof.

By the time President Bush announced the news last week, Washington had enough fresh material to begin settling what might be hundreds of the unresolved cases. Schweitzer told TIME that while complete evidence lies scattered "throughout the country," the key is the museum's one-inch-thick central index -- the Red Book -- cataloging everything the Vietnamese government knows about American servicemen.

At first, Schweitzer said, he tried to sell his book proposal to New York City publishers, but for three years "nobody was interested." At "wit's end," he turned to an old friend in official Washington, State Department official Richard Armitage, then at the Pentagon. But when Schweitzer offered his services, he was turned down. "I had to force Ted down the throats of the intelligence bureacracy," says a Defense Intelligence Agency official. The agency soon reversed itself, and under the code name Swamp Ranger, set Schweitzer to screen the Hanoi archives, copying enormous numbers of documents on a $50,000 data scanner the U.S. provided him -- which Vietnam, to the Pentagon's amazement, allowed him to use.

In July, Swamp Ranger began to deliver the major part of what became a trove of more than 5,000 black-and-white photos. Many of them are different views of the same individuals, but 1,700 different servicemen are included. Schweitzer also copied thousands of supporting documents from the archives, including photos of artifacts such as dog tags, uniform name strips, helmets, flight suits, eyeglasses, ID cards, class and wedding rings and many other personal items. "At one point," recalls principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Carl Ford, "I suddenly thought, wow, the Rosetta stone of the MIA issue."

Most of the men in the photos are clearly dead; 272 show live servicemen known to be some of the 591 prisoners who returned to the U.S. in 1973 in Operation Homecoming. A Pentagon task force is working with photo interpreters to identify the rest, aided by considerable quantities of notes accompanying each picture in a paper sleeve, often including the date and location of a plane crash.

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