US, Vietnam leaders exchange relics of war, build diplomacy

Posted June 04, 2012, at 11:07 p.m.

HANOI — Vietnamese forces seized letters from the corpse of a young U.S. Army sergeant named Steve Flaherty after he was killed in battle more than four decades ago.

A few miles south, a U.S. Marine similarly took a thin maroon diary off the chest of a Vietnamese soldier lying dead in a machine gun pit after a firefight.

The two items — relics of a bygone era when the United States and Vietnam were bitter enemies — on Monday became symbols of the evolving U.S.-Vietnamese relationship.

At a meeting in the Vietnamese capital to discuss possible military cooperation, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta gave the diary to his counterpart, Phuong Quang Thanh. In return, Panetta was presented with Flaherty’s letters — the first high-level exchange of its kind.

The unlikely warming of relations between the two countries has accelerated during the past two years, because of worries on both sides about China’s growing influence and military assertiveness.

But the newfound friendship has clear limitations as well, mostly because of strong reservations from Vietnamese leaders, and has been relegated to largely symbolic acts. Monday’s meeting did not yield many concrete advances in military cooperation. But as an additional symbolic gesture, Vietnam agreed to open three previously restricted sites to American excavation in search of the remains of still-missing U.S. solders.

To date, 980 remains from the Vietnam War have been identified. But nearly 1,700 others remain unaccounted for, and the remains of about three-quarters of them are believed to be in Vietnam, U.S. officials said.

Court backs Secret Service arrest of man confronting Cheney

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court shielded two Secret Service agents from being sued for having arrested a Colorado man who confronted former Vice President Dick Cheney on the street and said his “policies on Iraq are disgusting.”

The justices said citizens are not protected from a “retaliatory arrest” if police or federal agents have probable cause to take the person into custody.

In the Cheney case, a judge said the agents had reason to arrest Steven Howards, the protester, because he had bumped the vice president.

“This court has never recognized a First Amendment right to be free from a retaliatory arrest that is supported by probable cause,” said Justice Clarence Thomas. Such a right was certainly not “clearly established at the time of Howards’ arrest,” he added.

Public officials usually are shielded from lawsuits for carrying out their duties unless they violate a constitutional right that is understood and “clearly established” in law.

The decision was unanimous, although Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer did not join Thomas’s opinion. They said they voted to shield the Secret Service agents because they had a duty to make “singularly swift, on the spot, decisions” to protect the lives of high officials. However, had the two been “ordinary law enforcement agents,” they would have allowed the suit to go forward. Justice Elena Kagan sat out the case of Reichle v. Howards.

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