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Homeward Bound?

Lobbyist Volunteers to Help Ex-POWs Navigate Congress

William Massie doesn’t know much about the intricacies of the legislative process. But the Illinois native, who goes by the name Tom, wants Congress to get his ship back.

Obviously, it isn’t just any ship.

Massie was one of 83 crew members aboard the USS Pueblo, a cargo ship carrying out spying duties that was captured off the coast of North Korea in 1968. In what became a major flashpoint of the Cold War, one American was killed. The other sailors were held captive, beaten, tortured and finally released 11 months later.

Pyongyang still has the ship, which it uses, Massie and other veterans said, for anti-American propaganda. Bringing back the ship, which the Pentagon still considers an active-duty U.S. naval vessel, would correct what Massie and his mates call an injustice that has lasted for more than 35 years.

“That ship is part of us, and it belongs here. Until we get that thing back it will haunt us,” he said. “It’s that smell of the wounded and the shells exploded that is still with me today.”

A lawyer in Rockford, Ill., referred Massie to Jeffrey Taylor, who chairs the lobbying practice at the law firm Barnes and Thornburg. Taylor’s firm previously worked for a group of passengers from a hijacked plane, TWA Flight 847, to help pass legislation to unfreeze Iranian assets for those victims.

The U.S. possesses few frozen North Korean assets, but Taylor — whose lobbying clients include EnerDel Technologies and Rexahn Pharmaceuticals — wasn’t concerned about money. In fact, he agreed to take the Pueblo case free of charge, and the firm backed him up on it.

“It’s just so crystal clear to me that this has to happen,” Taylor said. “It might be a small thing in the whole global geo-political situation, but to 75 people, it is damn, damn important. When you talk to a Congressman and say North Korea still has the USS Pueblo, their reaction is, ‘Let’s go get it.’”

The story of how Massie engaged a volunteer lobbyist illustrates how a savvy K Street advocate can help a client navigate the system, draft legislation and nudge the Congressional process along in a client’s favor.

Taylor understands that the battle will not be easy.

“Who knows where there are bumps in the road?” said Taylor, a longtime Capitol Hill aide and one-time chief of staff to former Rep. David McIntosh (R-Ind.). “Maybe the State Department will say, ‘Nope, who cares about the boat — we’re trying to do big things.’ Certainly we’re not going to let the Pueblo stand in the way of major nuclear discussions.”

Even on the Hill, Taylor said, the measure would likely get vetted by the House and Senate Armed Services committees as well as the international relations panels.

But whatever the hurdles, Massie and some of his remaining USS Pueblo crewmates want to succeed as much as any paying client.

“Being over there for 11 months and brutalized the way we were, it’s a heavy load that we carry and a lot of the crew has suffered,” said Massie, a machinist and firefighter on the Pueblo who said he didn’t know he was aboard a spy ship. “To get it back would really mean, not a closure, but a healing process. I’ve always felt that it should’ve been part of our release.”

Bob Chicca, who lives in Bonita, Calif., was a staff sergeant in the Marine Corps on the Pueblo as a Korean interpreter (though, he concedes, “not a very good one”).

Getting the ship back, he said, would “end an extremely embarrassing situation for the United States.” And for Chicca, who was 24 when he was captured, claiming the ship would mean a chance to visit it again, which he said he’d like to do.

The initial strategy that Taylor drew up was to tuck language into the Defense authorization bill stipulating the return of the Pueblo as a condition of any future Washington-Pyongyang agreements. “There will be one through 410 stipulations on the agreement,” Taylor said. “We simply want No. 147 to be return of the USS Pueblo.”

So, in his spare time, the lobbyist drafted a few sentences and shopped around on Capitol Hill for a champion, just as he would for any client.

“You have to get one champion first, and then you write the bill and work on the bill, you get a ‘Dear Colleague’ together and maybe get a co-sponsor,” he said.

Taylor said that Rep. John Hostettler (R-Ind.) is considering taking up the initiative. Hostettler’s spokesman said the Congressman was “looking at putting some language together.” Taylor has also contacted the office of Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), who last year introduced a resolution memorializing the Pueblo’s captain and crew.

A spokesman for Akin said the Congressman “recognizes the bravery and courage of the USS Pueblo” crew, but added that staffers “needed to look at the proposal more closely.”

Hostettler’s office has suggested that instead of slipping it into the Defense authorization bill, it could be introduced as a free-standing measure, Taylor said.

“I’m not sure what a free-standing bill on returning the Pueblo would look like,” he said. But as for the change in strategy from a couple of sentences in the Defense authorization to a stand-alone measure, Taylor said he trusts the judgment of the Congressman and his aides.

Taylor added that a change in strategy or format is not unusual once a lobbyist finds a champion for legislation.

“I can try to guide them in the right direction, but they have to choose the path they think is the best way to proceed to get the USS Pueblo back to America,” Taylor said. “We’re very excited about this, and we’ll give it the good fight.”

As the legislative matter picks up steam, Taylor will bring in some of his other lobbying colleagues, including Edward Ayoob, a former aide to Sen. Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

One of Taylor’s next steps, he said, is bringing the ex-POWs to Washington to personally make the pitch. Massie would like to explain what he and his crewmates experienced and how much the return of the 173-foot ship would mean to them.

When the ship took fire, Massie said, he was shocked. “Right before that, I was talking to other crewmen and saying, ‘They’re not going to do anything because we’re the United States Navy,’” he recalled. “Once they boarded us, they blindfolded us, tied us up, I thought they were just going to shoot me and throw me out into the ocean.”

Instead, Massie said, “they brought us into port, and we were beaten constantly. We were kicked just about everywhere you can be kicked. Beaten with boards and belts, whatever they could get their hands on.”

But the Americans managed to rebel in subtle ways.

Massie wrote in letters that he couldn’t wait to get back to Rockford Memorial Amusement Park, which didn’t exist, although a Rockford Memorial Hospital did. One commander, Chicca said, created a person named “Lotta Crockashit” in his letters to get the message across that they were not being treated well. They also liked to give the Hawaiian good luck sign — which Chicca said was “the finger” — in photographs.

Massie added, “We ought to remember they have an actual part of the United States over there, and they are thumbing their noses at it.”

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