Pentagon officials leading efforts to recover missing American service members told their Russian counterparts in May there is no evidence that U.S. prisoners of the Korean War were brought into the Soviet Union, dismissing intelligence reports and eyewitness testimony compiled over the last two decades.
American officials made the claim during a May meeting of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs, and experts say it could undermine the Defense Department's efforts to recover further information about the more than 7,800 military personnel still unaccounted for from the Korean War of the 1950s.
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Michael Linnington, who until recently directed the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency, or DPAA, told Russian officials participating in the forum that the Pentagon has "no evidence" that missing troops ended up in the Soviet Union by way of China.
Linnington's comments angered experts who say the move will signal to the Russians that the U.S. government is no longer interested in pursuing a lead that it has chased for decades.
"Many families believe that their loved one crossed the Yalu River through China and ended up in the Soviet Union. Every week, I answer that question. We have no evidence of POWs taken to the Soviet Union through China," Linnington said during a meeting with Russian counterparts on May 23, according to the official minutes of the 20th Plenum of the U.S.-Russia Joint Commission on POW/MIAs recently made public by the Pentagon.
"Specific and detailed information on our air losses in the northwest would make it easier to explain to the families. It is very hard to prove that something did not happen (the transfer of U.S. POWs to the Soviet Union)," Linnington said.
Later, another U.S. defense official characterized the belief that U.S. prisoners of war were brought to the Soviet Union as a "survivor myth" perpetuated by their families as a "coping mechanism."
"In the Korea War Working Group, relatives of the missing believe some walked out of Korea and China, and somehow wound up in the Soviet Union," Col. Eduard Paderin, the chief of the Archive Service of the Russian Armed Forces, said on May 24. "Families do not want to lose hope."
"We have found that these types of survivor myths are not all that uncommon," responded Cmdr. Mark Knollmueller, who then served as acting director of policy and plans for the DPAA. "It is a coping mechanism for some families."
Researchers, former officials, and family members of missing service members who spoke to the Washington Free Beacon were frustrated by the American officials' comments, given that a report prepared by researchers with the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office, DPAA's predecessor, in 1993 cited "broad and convincing" eyewitness testimony from individuals who saw U.S. prisoners of the Korean War in Joseph Stalin's gulags.
"We believe that U.S. Korean War POWs were transferred to the Soviet Union and never repatriated," the 1993 report stated. "The rational for taking selected prisoners to the USSR was to exploit and counter U.S. aircraft technologies; to use them for general intelligence purposes."
Norm Kass, who served as executive secretary of the U.S. side of the joint commission between 1993 and 2010, described the report as "preliminary evidence" of American POWs from Korea in the Soviet Union.
The report pushed Russia to publicly acknowledge the possibility of the transfer of American POWs to the Soviet Union and to deliver documents to the Americans to help determine the fates of service members unaccounted for from the Korean War.
By 1996, the U.S. side of the commission had "collected a significant amount of information that suggests there is a high probability that during the Korean War American POWs were transferred from Korea to the Soviet Union."
A spokesman for the DPAA told the Washington Free Beacon that "there is no concrete evidence (reports, files, documents) that has been discovered concerning specific cases of missing who were POW transfers to the former Soviet Union."
"There still remains an overwhelming preponderance of circumstantial evidence that leads one to conclude POW transfers did occur during past conflicts," the spokesman said. "We persistently engage our Russian counterparts on the Commission to provide evidence from their archives concerning our missing service members."
In the 1996 report, the commission cited testimony from ex-Soviet officers, soldiers, and citizens who said they played roles in transferring American POWs to the Soviet Union.
For example, General Georgi Lobov, the senior Soviet commander in Korea, told a Russian journalist before his death that he was aware of at least 30 to 40 American POWs who were sent to the Soviet Union.
The report also cited a former Soviet sergeant who said he saw American POWs in a hospital in the Soviet Far East in 1951. One Soviet colonel "recounted that there was a standing order to send all captured pilots to the Soviet Union." Another colonel said he interrogated American POWs in Soviet territory.
A former Chinese officer claimed to have turned over three captured American flyers to the Soviets in 1951.
The commission also cited U.S. intelligence reports of American POWs from Korea in the Soviet Union.
The commission also investigated individual leads of foreigners from Poland, Hungary, and other countries who reported knowing of or seeing American service members in the Soviet Union.
"It's all what is called preliminary. None of it is definitive," Kass said.
The commission in its 1996 report put the number of U.S. POWs delivered to the Soviet Union at "between thirty and forty."
Experts believe proof of the transfer of these POWs to the Soviet Union is only contained in Russia's most secret KGB or GRU military intelligence files, which Moscow has refused to open to the U.S. government.
Those who spoke to the Free Beacon said the comments made by U.S. officials at the May meeting may squander any future opportunity to convince the Russians to hand over concrete evidence.
"The U.S. side of the [commission] is on record as acknowledging that transfers of U.S. POWs into the USSR cannot be ruled out," Kass said.
"Statements to the contrary seriously undermine the Commission's credibility, diminish the importance which U.S. commissioners have placed on the transfer issue," he added.
John Zimmerlee, the son of an American service member who went missing in action during the Korean War and who has researched the fates of POW/MIAs from Korea for 20 years, said he was baffled by the comments made by the American officials.
"[There are] at least 1,000 pages of documents supporting this," Zimmerlee, who holds a leadership position at the Korean & Cold War POW/MIA Network, said. "It baffles me that our government is not supporting the families and following through on this."
Zimmerlee wrote the book American Trophies about the matter with Korean War POW/MIAs researcher Mark Sauter.
"It's bad enough Pentagon officials on the Joint Commission are condescending to POW/MIA families and clueless about the extensive evidence on POW transfers produced by U.S. intelligence and Pentagon investigators in the past," Sauter, a former investigative reporter and Army officer, told the Free Beacon. "The Pentagon is sending a clear message that the United States does not expect, or even want, to obtain confirmation of the transfers."
The DPAA spokesman said Linnington's statement "was made in the context of a discussion with Russian counterparts who were denying that there was any evidence to support POW transfers."
"Sidebar conversations between U.S. and Russian attendees addressed the archival challenges in researching allegations that former U.S. POWs either escaped imprisonment in North Korea or evaded into the USSR to take refuge; or that the Soviet Union purposefully took U.S. prisoners of war from North Korea or Vietnam into Siberia or other Soviet locations for nefarious purposes," the spokesman said.
Kass said statements by American officials fed the Russians "the ammo they need to shut down something that we on the U.S. side were very much interested in keeping open."
Charlotte Mitnik discovered through research of U.S. government files that her brother, an Air Force pilot in the Korean War who was missing in action, radioed in 1952 that he was being followed by two Soviet MiG fighter jets before he went missing.
"I don't know how these people come to this conclusion. Maybe they didn't want to make waves. I don't know," Mitnik told the Free Beacon.
The U.S.-Russia Joint Commission was established in 1992 by Presidents George H.W. Bush and Boris Yeltsin to create a dialogue between both countries to obtain information about missing service members from World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, and the Cold War, as well as Soviet troops lost in Afghanistan.
The meetings were stalled between 2005 and 2016, as Vladimir Putin's power grew and U.S.-Russia relations have broken down. The commission's May forum was the first between U.S. and Russian participants in over a decade.
An internal Pentagon study reported by the Associated Press in 2013 shed light on the waste, dysfunction, and mismanagement at the DPAA's predecessor. The revelations led to an overhaul of the Pentagon's program spearheading the search for remains of missing service members, which operates on a more than $130 million annual budget.
Families of prisoners of war and service members missing in action have grown frustrated with the revolving door of officials leading the department. Linnington announced in June that he was leaving his top post at the DPAA for a high-level position at the Wounded Warrior Project, after only a year on the job.
"Every two years they are changing the people doing the research," Mitnik said. "There's no continuity."