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Though 23 years have passed since the United States pulled out of Vietnam, it has taken until recently for one of the more shameful aspects of that horrible conflict to come to light.

It's an aspect that even now puts Washington in a bad light. America can clean its hands only if Congress is more generous than the Pentagon and the Department of Justice have been so far.The scenario, briefly, goes like this: In 1961, when U.S. military involvement in the Southeast Asian country was quietly escalating, the Central Intelligence Agency recruited and trained various South Vietnamese as commandos and saboteurs, then infiltrated them into North Vietnam. Though some of the infiltrators were killed, many were captured, tortured and imprisoned.

While the captives' treatment at Hanoi's hands was bad enough, Washington also became cold and calculating in its own way. Even though the Pentagon knew that dozens of the commandos were living in captivity, the brass declared them dead in 1965 to save money and embarrassment - even going so far as to pay their wives a $200 "death gratuity."

This heartless stinting started coming to light recently when some of the surviving commandos - 200 of whom now live in the United States - brought suit against the American government in U.S. Claims Court. Though the total tab they are seeking comes to $11 million, their individual claims are really quite modest. All that each of them seeks is $2,000 a year in back pay, without interest, for time spent in prison.

Sadly, Washington's shameful performance did not end when it tried to pretend the living were dead. It continues to this day. Not even bothering to deny the survivors' claim that they were under contract with the U.S. government, the Justice Department is still refusing to open Washington's purse. Why? Because of an 1875 Supreme Court ruling that contracts with secret agents are unenforceable in courts.

This stance represents the triumph of legalistic hair-splitting over simple morality. These men risked their lives at the behest of the U.S. government, then endured years of mistreatment and imprisonment.

Fortunately, a movement is afoot in Congress to bypass the courts and compensate the former commandos through an amendment to the Defense Department authorization bill. This initiative comes from Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, himself a decorated veteran of the Vietnam conflict. Its fate will tell whether or not Washington retains the vestiges of a conscience.