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DIA efforts to recover POWs/MIAs: then and now

By DIA’s Office of Corporate Communications

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In 1970 Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) analysts estimated that the North Vietnamese held 61 American prisoners of war (POWs) at Son Tay prison camp, west of Hanoi. A plan for their rescue called for a night helicopter assault by Special Forces to breach the compound walls, rescue the POWs, and depart before enemy reinforcements arrived. The raid would launch from Takhli Air Base in Thailand. Two days before the planned raid, named Operation Kingpin, DIA Director Lt. Gen. Donald Bennett received intelligence indicating that the U.S. prisoners had been moved. DIA analysts spent the night poring over the latest imagery and other intelligence. The next morning, Bennett informed Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Thomas Moorer that there was only a 50/50 chance the POWs were still at Son Tay. After consulting with Secretary of Defense Melvin Laird and President Richard M. Nixon, officials decided to proceed with the raid as scheduled.

The military launched the raid on Nov. 21, 1970. The assault force engaged in a fierce firefight with the camp’s defenders before discovering that the POWs had indeed been relocated. They were able to disengage without suffering serious casualties. Although the raid did not succeed because the prisoners had been moved, it demonstrated DIA’s ability to provide timely, tailored tactical intelligence support to U.S. combat forces, an important milestone in the agency’s evolution.

As directed by Congress, the Intelligence Community Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Analytic Cell was established on Sept. 18, 2001, to serve as the focal point for post-1990 POW/MIA and personnel recovery-related all-source analysis within the intelligence community. The cell’s mission has subsequently expanded to include U.S. civilians, and designated foreigners held hostage, kidnapped or missing. Today, the cell performs under the director of DIA’s executive agent authorities, where it continues to support activities on POW/MIA cases, captives and hostage crises and to provide crucial and timely analysis to bring U.S. personnel back to U.S. soil.