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WAS PEROT LOOKING FOR MORE THAN MISSING G.I.s IN VIETNAM?
If anything has helped catapult Ross Perot into the political limelight, it has been the POW-MIA issue. Perot first earned his reputation as a POW champion during the Christmas season of 1969, when he flew to Indochina with planeloads of medicine and food for captured U.S. servicemen. Although the Vietnamese didn't let Perot into the country, the spectacular gesture eventually led to better treatment of POWs and gave Perot a cause he has trumpeted ever since.
But now, senior Vietnamese officials say Perot's relations with Hanoi extend beyond the POW or MIA cause. In interviews with BUSINESS WEEK, Le Bang, the director of the Americas department at Vietnam's Foreign Ministry in Hanoi, says that Harry McKillop, a Perot representative, has visited Vietnam 13 times in four years. And starting in 1990, Bang says he detected a shift in Perot's interests. According to Bang, McKillop asked Hanoi to give Perot the O.K. to put together deals with U.S. companies on behalf of the Vietnamese government once the U.S. trade embargo was lifted. McKillop, Bang says, also visited the Heavy Industry Ministry and others during his trips.
`TOTAL MISFIRE.' Perot vehemently denies any business involvement in Vietnam. "This is a total misfire," he told BUSINESS WEEK. "I've never considered investing in Vietnam. My only interest was in MIAs." Perot says that the Vietnamese would bring up possible business deals, but he wasn't interested. Perot says McKillop made seven visits to Vietnam since 1987: "They kept asking him to come back," Perot says. "The one thing you have to be with Asians is patient." Perot insists that he never asked for any authorization to arrange business deals. He confirms that McKillop did visit other ministries in Hanoi, but Perot says he did it "to accommodate the Vietnamese."
In 1990, when Bang says Perot's interests began to shift toward business, Secretary of State James A. Baker III was in Paris hammering out a Cambodia peace accord with Hanoi's cooperation. To many, it seemed as if the lifting of the U.S. embargo was imminent. The first U.S. businessman to rush in to Vietnam was McKillop, who was acting on Perot's behalf, Bang says. In the summer of 1990, according to Bang, McKillop said, "We are satisfied with the MIA issues and can put that behind us. The time is ripe for American companies and Perot himself to invest in Vietnam. We should be concentrating on business and economic relations." McKillop declined to be interviewed for this story. Perot responded on his behalf.
Bang claims McKillop told him he needed a letter from Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach to prove that Perot had a mandate to represent Hanoi. Thach immediately sent the letter. "In anticipation of the normalization of relations, Vietnam now agrees to designate Mr. Perot or his representatives to work on behalf of Vietnam," says Bang, reciting it from memory.
The letter, Bang says, specified that Perot would be entitled to compensation from American companies and their Vietnamese partners for any deals that succeeded. It specified six areas of interest: electronics and computers, oil and gas, metals, real estate, food and agriculture, and transportation. McKillop said that Perot was personally interested in investing as soon as the embargo was lifted, Bang says.
Perot dismisses much of Bang's account. He says that Foreign Minister Thach did write him a letter asking for help in developing certain industries, "but it was certainly not at my request." Perot says he never responded to it, and both he and McKillop recall that when McKillop first handed Perot the letter, his response was: "What the hell is that?" Indeed, Perot says he then told McKillop not to return to Vietnam, but when Thach retired in 1991, McKillop went on a "ceremonial" visit.
The MIA issue remains one of the most divisive in American politics, with some conservatives arguing that the U.S. trade embargo should remain in place until all 2,266 MIAs are accounted for. Perot now says he needs more information before deciding what his position is on the embargo. Furthermore, he says he still believes that there are U.S. servicemen alive in Southeast Asia today.
CHANGE OF HEART. Perot and McKillop first met in 1969. It was McKillop, then a Braniff Inc. vice-president, who helped Perot charter the two Braniff planes for the Christmas airlift. McKillop accompanied Perot on that visit and one in 1970.
The Perot Group confirms that McKillop is now a full-time Perot employee in the real estate division, but other sources say he is Perot's man for undertaking "special assignments." From 1986 to January, 1992, McKillop worked for Perot's old company, Electronic Data Systems Corp., as head of its travel group. Company sources say McKillop did take a number of trips from Dallas to Southeast Asia while still working for EDS. Most employees assumed he was going there to discuss MIA-POW issues, but McKillop's instructions, which came from Perot, were kept secret, an EDS source says.
While McKillop seems to have established close relations with Le Bang, Perot says, "I don't know who this guy Bang is." The Vietnamese official is widely regarded as pivotal in promoting an economic thaw between the two nations. Bang visited the U.S. in 1991 as a guest of the not-for-profit U.S.-Vietnam Trade Council. "Perot's people obviously knew Bang, and when they heard he was coming they were all over me for access to him," says Virginia Foote, the group's staff director. Among them was McKillop, whom Foote describes as "a very mysterious man. He's the sort of character who doesn't even give you his business card."
Perot's last visit to Vietnam was in 1987. It was after that trip that the Texas billionaire appeared to have a change of heart. Perot suddenly started talking publicly about Vietnam's own 100,000 MIAs and the "rude and arrogant" treatment of the Vietnamese by the U.S.A former Reagan Administration official who talked with Perot before the trip and was familiar with the negotiations says Perot believed the Vietnamese would offer more information on POW-MIAs if the U.S. started pouring in development money. "He came back telling us all the things the Vietnamese wanted, which we all knew before he went," this former official says. "He probably confused the Vietnamese. God knows what he said. He may have led them them to believe that there was a lot more that the U.S. could offer." When the White House shrugged off the Perot visit, he blamed the Administration for dragging its feet on the MIA issue.
McKillop took most of his trips to Vietnam in 1988 and 1989. Almost every time, he had access to Foreign Minister Thach to discuss MIA issues or to sort out the diplomatic tiffs that were slowing down progress. "He developed very good relations with Vietnam and with me," Bang says. On two occasions, he adds, Hanoi helped McKillop visit Laos, a country that has revealed little about those missing in action.
`STRAY BULLET.' In 1989, Bang says he accompanied McKillop to schools and hospitals at old battle sites in Vietnam. At a college, Bang says, McKillop was stunned to see that English-language textbooks came from Russia. Bang says McKillop promised to ship textbooks, medicine, and medical equipment. So far, Perot has not delivered on promises to give humanitarian aid, Bang says. "I know nothing about this," Perot says. "Mr. McKillop says it is not true. If we had made any commitments on humanitarian items, we would have kept them."
Perot has remained active in the MIA-POW issue throughout the years. As late as last fall, he met with the Senate Select Committee on POW-MIA Affairs in Washington. Staffers followed up later in Texas.
Why would Vietnamese officials raise these issues now? Perot says Bang is either a "stray bullet" or, more ominously, he suggests that "our government has gone to them and said if you really want to speed up normalization, chew on this guy." So far, this bizarre episode raises more questions than it answers.ROSS PEROT'S DEALINGS WITH VIETNAM
1969 Perot tries to airlift food and medicine to POWs
1970 Perot flies the wives of five U.S. POWs and MIAs to Vietnam, to try to
persuade Hanoi to soften its stance
1973 Perot pays for a homecoming parade for Vietnam vets in San Francisco
1986 The Reagan Administration gives Perot special access to government
documents on the POW-MIA issue
1987 The White House is angered by Perot's visit to Vietnam, charging that he
undermined U.S. policy
1988 Perot point man Harry McKillop takes the first of a series of trips to
Hanoi stretching over the next three years
1989 Hanoi officials say McKillop promised humanitarian aid. Perot denies it
1990 Secretary of State James Baker begins to hammer out a Cambodian peace
accord with Hanoi's backing
1990 Vietnamese officials say McKillop begins to push for wide-ranging business
deals, but Perot says he was only interested in MIAs
1990 Foreign Minister Nguyen Co Thach writes a letter authorizing Perot to put
together deals with U.S. companies for the Vietnamese government. Perot says he
didn't solicit the letter and didn't respond
Pete Engardio in Hanoi, Amy Borrus in Washington, Wendy Zellner in Dallas, and Joyce Barnathan in New York