On April 8, 1987, Ross Perot reported on his nine-month special investigation into the POW/MIA issue in a recently disclosed letter to President Reagan. His first finding: "We left POWs behind at the end of the war in Vietnam." His second finding: "We knew we were leaving men behind." His third finding: "The men left behind were held in Laos."

Throughout Perot's unconventional presidential campaign, the media has frequently pointed to his involvement in the POW/MIA issue as evidence of an "obsessive" and "conspiratorial" mindset. But this characterization increasingly rings hollow.

Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate Select Committee on POW/MIA affairs, said recently that the information he has seen "contradict{s} official statements . . . repeated for almost two decades."

After Russian President Boris Yeltsin's statement that U.S. prisoners from Vietnam were relocated to his country and may still be alive, one White House source told me: "Looks like Perot's been vindicated."

I am a convert on the issue: After years of skepticism, I now believe Perot's conclusions were accurate. My conversion began eight years ago, when my research on human rights in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam (SRV) led me to conclude that the Hanoi government and its clients were capable of holding Americans while claiming to have freed all U.S. prisoners. Other research led me reluctantly to conclude that the U.S. government was less than forthcoming about what it knew.

Two works -- each with flaws -- influenced me: the POW/MIA report issued by Sen. Jesse Helms (R-N.C.); and the book "Kiss the Boys Goodbye," by Monika Jensen-Stevenson and William Stevenson.

The Helms report shows signs of shoddy research, such as mistaking a 1973 report of 5,000 prisoners in North Vietnamese hands as including only Americans when the number included South Vietnamese. The Stevensons' book partly relies on anonymous sources and sources that others have discredited.

But like Perot, Helms's staff had access to classified documents. And the Stevensons have studied the issue for years: Monika Stevenson began looking into it as a producer at CBS's "60 Minutes"; her husband, an Indochina "hand," was no stranger to the intelligence world.

Moreover, Helms documented a pattern of U.S. government neglect of American POWs back to World War I. And however anecdotal, the evidence in the Stevensons' book is extensive. Another book, Nigel Cawthorne's "The Bamboo Cage," published in London last year, sifted 15 volumes of declassified intelligence documents that can be found in the Library of Congress. He found evidence he terms "a mile high" that Americans were left behind, and "abundant" evidence that some were alive in 1990.

Perot's involvement dates to 1969, when he tried to take Christmas parcels to prisoners in Hanoi and took POW/MIA family members to Paris to lobby North Vietnamese officials. He championed the attempted Son Tay prison camp rescue in 1970, and in 1974 sent the raid's leader, Col. Arthur "Bull" Simons, into Laos in an unsuccessful attempt to locate Americans there.

The U.S. government also remained interested, and the Joint Chiefs of Staff planned a reconnaissance and rescue mission in Laos for spring 1981, but it was aborted after the reconnaissance mission failed.

Prior to the raid, Perot reactivated his involvement. He has been linked to a planned (and thwarted) rescue mission led by James "Bo" Gritz, but it is not clear if Perot did more than reimburse Gritz for a plane ticket. When Reagan appointed Perot to his Foreign Intelligence Advisory Board in 1982, the businessman used the post to probe further for POW/MIA information, according to a White House staffer.

Public interest in the issue continued, and when it intensified in the mid-1980s, Gen. Eugene Tighe, former director of the Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA), was brought out of retirement to review DIA procedures in gathering POW/MIA information.

Tighe's commission completed work in June 1986; its report remains classified. But Tighe told a House subcommittee in closed session that the report's "unanimous" conclusion was that there was a "strong possibility that live American military POWs remain captive in Southeast Asia." His remarks were printed in the Congressional Record. Recent disclosures from the Senate Select Committee indicate what many suspect: Tighe's testimony was "sanitized" before appearing in the Congressional Record.

Perot, whom Reagan had also authorized as a special investigator on the issue with access to classified documents, told the subcommittee: "The evidence is overwhelming that people are there. . . . I don't know how you define coverup, but you look at the standards we require to show you that there is one live American still in Vietnam or Laos and compare that to what we send home in caskets and we've got a double standard."

But Perot's subsequent recommendations for a more energetic and flexible U.S. policy to learn more went nowhere.

Perot also contacted the Christic Institute's Danny Sheehan, who had pursued the issue as well. Sheehan has told the New York Times he discussed his "Secret Team" theory of U.S. foreign policy with Perot. The theory asserts extensive illegal actions have occurred in the conduct of U.S. foreign policy at the hands of various operatives.

Perot's association with this radical group is cited as showing a conspiratorial mindset. Yet a mundane explanation exists: Perot, gathering material in his role as a presidential investigator, approached the Christic Institute because of its extensive files.

Questions about the integrity of U.S. foreign policy officials bears on another Perot episode: a photo showing then-assistant defense secretary Richard Armitage with a Vietnamese American woman who spent 30 days in jail after pleading guilty to conducting an illegal gambling operation based in Arlington. Perot has shown the photo to reporters and others in the context of questioning whether unknown influences shadow the POW issue and Armitage's role. Those who raise such questions cite in explanation of their doubts a secret 1985 memo from Gen. Paul F. Gorman, then head of U.S. Southern Command, asserting, "There is not a single group in unconventional warfare that does not use narcotics to fund itself."

Armitage was responsible for POW/MIA affairs and covert warfare operations, a dual assignment that still puzzles many who are seeking to understand the period. Perot's interest in Armitage was spurred by information he said was brought him by police officer James L. Badey in February 1986.

Badey alleged that Armitage had a relationship with the Vietnamese American woman, Nguyet Thi O'Rourke, who had pleaded guilty in 1984 to the gambling charge. Badey has written that Arlington police uncovered "an elaborate network" of high-stakes wagering run by O'Rourke and netting "about $100,000 per week."

Armitage later wrote the woman's probation officer on Pentagon stationery suggesting "the transgressions . . . be viewed in a cultural context."

When his letter became a public issue, Armitage offered to resign. The offer was refused by then-Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger. Armitage has denied any improper relationship with the woman. Armitage is a hero to many: He served in Indochina for nearly 10 years, and amid the collapse of South Vietnam in April 1975, reflagged 35 Vietnamese ships, allowing them to take thousands of refugees to safety in the Philippines. Moreover, an FBI investigation of Armitage later found no evidence of criminal activity, and Reagan and Bush administration officials widely praise him as an honorable public official.

But Perot and others came to see government officials as part of the problem in getting to the bottom of the POW mystery, and Perot has called Armitage an obstructionist.

The Stevensons relate how Perot once told then-Vice President Bush, "I go looking for prisoners, but . . . I can't get at the prisoners because of the corruption among our own covert people."

Although Perot's access to classified material was later cut off, he continued to probe. Feelers from Hanoi led him to believe the Vietnamese wanted to deal. He proposed several schemes to build a relationship; the administration rejected them.

Meanwhile in July 1987, Reagan sent Gen. John W. Vessey Jr. to Hanoi to begin the protracted negotiations that eventually led to the current situation, with several dozen Americans in Vietnam inspecting crash sites and pursuing various live sighting reports.

Skeptics point out that no missing American -- except for alleged collaborator Bobby Garwood -- has ever come back alive. H. Bruce Franklin, author of "M.I.A: Mythmaking in America," calls the notion of surviving MIA/POWs "an elaborate fraud."

But thanks to Perot and others who have stayed with the issue, many Americans now believe there is more to be learned about the fate of Americans soldiers in Indochina.

Jonathan Tombes is a researcher at the American Enterprise Institute.