There was a time when politicians couldn't do enough in the search for U.S. soldiers missing since the Vietnam War. Public concern reached a crescendo a decade ago when Ronald Reagan pledged to make the hunt the highest national priority.

But MIAs and POWs are out of fashion in the 1990s. There are 2,000 unaccounted for, and their families suffer daily from the frustration of not knowing. Somewhere along the way the people in Washington who were supposed to be hot on the trail of POWs and MIAs lost the scent and began barking up other trees.

We have already reported on how some prominent independent organizations that once goaded the government are now guilty of foot-dragging themselves. The same thing has happened to some inside the government who lost interest and effectively abandoned the search.

The best example is Congress's POW-MIA Task Force, made up of lawmakers who are supposed to be the watchdogs of the Pentagon's search. According to some close to the task force, its 28 members can scarcely get the time of day from the Pentagon.

Past and present committee members who continue to care now that the cause is no longer celebre have set out on their own to hunt the missing. To them, the task force has become a paper tiger.

In June, at one of the task force's sporadic meetings, Rep. Robert C. Smith (R-N.H.) tried to get fresh, raw intelligence data on recent live sightings of missing GIs. The Defense Intelligence Agency, which has the data, refused to give it to the task force.

Instead, the DIA pacifies the task force with bonehead summaries of intelligence data that don't allow the members to determine if the sightings are real or imagined. The agency told Smith that if it was going to share the information with anyone in Congress, it would be with the Select Committee on Intelligence.

"The task force really is powerless when you come right down to it," an aide to Smith told our associate Dan Njegomir. Smith is "disappointed and frustrated," the aide said, enough to strike out on his own for some answers. Smith, along with Rep. Denny Smith (R-Ore.), has sponsored a bill to open some of the intelligence reports on the missing.

If they are successful, some of the task force members might have to start coming to meetings. Only a handful show up now. The sessions drone on about progress in counting the dead -- a favorite topic for the Pentagon -- and sidestep the more difficult issue of whether anyone is still alive.

Matt Reynolds, an aide to the chairman of the task force, Rep. Robert J. Lagomarsino (R-Calif.), told us that if some members don't show up, it's because they already know the issues and have other things to do.

Reynolds said the task force went over detailed intelligence reports with the DIA in the mid-1980s and doesn't need to rehash them every time there is a new sighting reported. Lagomarsino is "satisfied in his mind that the system as a whole is working," Reynolds said.