CBS NEWS BROADCASTS - Aired April 2000

The First Casualty
A Downed Gulf War Flier
Labeled 'Killed In Action'
But What Really Happened To Him?

(CBS) On January 17, 1991, the first night of the Gulf War, Lieutenant Commander Michael Scott Speicher was shot down over Iraq. He became the conflict's first American casualty.

But there's one problem: There is no evidence that he is dead. Bob Simon reports.

Speicher is the only American unaccounted for from the Gulf war. When Speicher was officially declared killed in action in May of 1991, the U.S. military had never even looked for him.

Somewhere in the arid, desolate desert of western Iraq, Speicher's F-18 crashed in darkness two hours after the war began.

Speicher was one of the best pilots on the aircraft carrier Saratoga. He wasn't supposed to fly on the first mission of the war but he refused to be left behind. "When it just came down to flying the airplane, there was nobody like Spike," says Barry Hull, another pilot in Speicher's squadron.

On January 17, Hull, Speicher, and 32 other pilots took off at 1:30 a.m. from the USS Saratoga in the Red Sea. They were supposed to suppress enemy air defenses west of Baghdad. It was a very dangerous mission.

"The closer we got to Baghdad the more impressive the light show over Baghdad became," recalls Bob Stumpf, who was flying two planes away from Speicher. "It was just an incredible anti-aircraft barrage."

Eight minutes from the target, Stumpf was startled by a huge flash in the sky. He assumed the blast was a missile, but he didn't think that any planes had been hit.

The fighters continued toward the target and dropped their bombs. As they turned back toward the Saratoga, the pilots checked in over the radio. Speicher didn't check in. The pilots returned to the Saratoga just before dawn without him.

During their intelligence debriefings on the ship, Dave Renaud, who had been the closest pilot to Speicher, reported seeing explosions five miles away, in Speicher's direction, at the same time Stumpf had witnessed that large flash in the sky. Renaud reported the plane had been blown to bits. He even drew a little circle on his map where he thought he had seen the fireball.

"The first report was 'airplane disintegrated on impact; no contact with the pilot; we really don't believe that anyone was able to survive the impact,'" says Admiral Stan Arthur, commander of all Allied Naval Forces in the Persian Gulf.

A few hours after the first mission had returned to the ships, Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney held a press conference in Washington. On the basis of one account of a flash in the night sky and 12 hours of radio silence, Secretary Cheney declared Speicher dead.

To Stumpf, the pronouncement seemed premature.

Why did Secretary of Defense Richard Cheney declare Speicher dead in the first hours of the Gulf War when there was no evidence to support it? Cheney declined to comment.

Admiral Arthur says that because the Navy wasn't sure where Speicher had gone down, no search and rescue mission was launched. But the captain of the Saratoga personally told Speicher's wife Joanne that "every effort continues to be made to locate Scott." A week later, Speicher's commanding officer sent this message to Joanne, "All, repeat, all, theater combat search and rescue efforts were mobilized."

On March 7, 1991, right after the war, Pentagon spokesman Pete Williams assured Americans the military would continue to look for every missing soldier and flier.

When the POWs were released at the end of the war, Tony Albano, who was Speicher's roommate, was sent to Saudi Arabia in case Speicher was among the prisoners being freed. He didn't see Speicher.

Weeks later, the Iraqis sent a pound and a half of flesh to the Americans, claiming it was the remains of a pilot named Michael. Speicher's first name was Michael and there was no other Michael among the missing. One DNA test and the case would be closed forever.

Then things got strange. That spring, Victor Weedn, a forensic pathologist, tested the flesh. He said it did not come from Speicher.

Were Saddam and the Iraqis trying to hide something, or had they just made a mistake?

Apparently no one asked, because the next day, May 7, the Navy began the process of officially declaring Speicher KIA. "I was a little surprised at that because our test report didn't show that he was dead," Weedn says.

Joanne Speicher was asked to sign off on this decision. She thought all search efforts had been exhausted, so she agreed. While most of the country was celebrating its victory, a private memorial service was being held in Arlington National Cemetery. There was no body.

Speicher's case was closed. Then in December 1993 an Army general from Qatar came to the western Iraqi desert, 150 miles southwest of Baghdad. He and his party were hunting for rare falcons when they stumbled across an American F-18.

The condition of the nose suggested the plane had not disintegrated in the air. The Qatari took pictures, and pieces of the plane, to the American Embassy in Doha, the Qatari capital. The photos and a piece of radar equipment were sent to Washington, where a check was run on the serial numbers. The results stirred the Pentagon. Nearly three years after the Gulf War, Speicher's jet had been located.

The pictures showed that the canopy had come down away from the plane; this indicated that the pilot had tried to eject.

The Pentagon went back and checked the satellite imagery it used to track Scud launches during the war. It found a crash site, with the outlines of a jet in the sand - Speicher's F-18. The crash spot was right where his fellow pilot had said it was. But despite three years of assurances, no one in the U.S. government or the military had ever bothered to look for Speicher's plane.

Says Arthur: "You get this sinking feeling that there's something really wrong here, that you missed something."

Part II

Years Later, Search For Flier Continues Is He Alive In Iraq? Investigators Will Now Try To Find Out

(CBS) In April 1994, Admiral Stan Arthur, who sent Michael Scott Speicher into battle, wanted to launch a covert mission into Iraq to check out the crash site. But some Pentagon policy officials were concerned about casualties. They wanted to ask Saddam for permission to go to the site under the Red Cross flag.

This approach enraged those who wanted the mission. "You don't preserve your options when you essentially announce to the Iraqi government that you know that you found a crash site, and you found something at the crash site that might lead you to conclude the pilot is alive," says Tim Connolly, who was then the deputy secretary of defense in charge of special operations as well as a Gulf War veteran with a Bronze Star.

"Because if, in fact, the pilot is alive and being held by the Iraqis, the pilot isn't alive anymore." Connolly also wanted to launch a covert mission.

Cassified documents show that the chance of success for a secret mission was considered high. Connolly says that the area was very sparsely populated.
At a meeting in December 1994 in the Pentagon, Secretary of Defense William Perry and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General John Shalikashvili, decided how to approach the site.

Connolly argued his case at the meeting. "I closed by saying, 'I will go out the door of this conference room and I will stand in the hall, and I will stop the first five people who walk by in military uniform, regardless of service or gender,'" Connolly recalls. "'I will explain to them what we are trying to do and ask them if they will get on the helicopter. And I will guarantee you that all five will get on the helicopter.' And then I shut my mouth. And the chairman said, 'I do not want to have to write letters home to the parents to tell them that their son or daughter died looking for old bones.'"

The Pentagon nixed the covert mission. General Shalikashvili would not talk to us about his decision.

On March 1, 1995, Saddam agreed to allow American experts to visit the crash site. But because of what Baghdad called 'unforeseen bureaucratic delays,' the Americans didn't visit for nine months.

When the U.S. team got there, they found the site had been tampered with. The cockpit was missing. The Iraqis had gotten there first.

But the Americans found a plane that had not disintegrated in the sky. They found the canopy, which ejects with the pilot, about a mile from the aircraft. Spent flares and parts of a survival kit also were located. There was not a bone or a drop of blood or a trace of Michael Scott Speicher anywhere.

But toward the end of their six-day search, the Americans found a tattered flight suit. Albano, who has examined the suit, thinks it is Speicher's.

There were definite signs Speicher could have survived an ejection. But when the crash team returned the Pentagon said that there was no evidence that Speicher had survived. In fact, the investigators reported that the crash site provided no evidence Speicher had died. The Defense Department now grudgingly acknowledges this.

"I don't believe we have any evidence that he's dead," says Connolly.

But if Speicher survived the crash, why didn't he send a rescue call on his radio? Pilots are repeatedly drilled on the importance of keeping their radios with them at all times during crashes. It is the key to getting rescued.

Minutes before Speicher took off, the pilots had been given new radios. These radios were larger than the previous models, and didn't fit in the vest pocket that had held the earlier models.

Even before the mission, the size of the radios worried Ted Phagan, who was in charge of the pilots' radios. "As the pilots are walking out I'm telling them, 'you're gonna lose this radio if you have to eject,'" he recalls. Phagan thinks Speicher lost his radio when he ejected. (By the second launch, Phagan had fixed the problem with a new flap.)

By mid-1996 even General Shalikashvili wrote to the CIA expressing his misgivings about Speicher's status.

Speicher is still listed as 'Killed In Action.' But with mounting evidence that he survived the crash, and without any evidence that he died, U.S. intelligence agencies are launching a new search. Investigators aren't ruling out the possibility - slim though it might be - that Speicher could be alive in Iraq.

American investigators say an Iraqi defector who had recently escaped to Jordan told them that in the first days of the war, he had driven an American pilot from the desert to Baghdad and the authorities. The pilot, he says, was alive, alert, and wearing a flight suit. The defector pointed Speicher out in a photo lineup, and passed two lie detector tests.

The head of the Iraqi Air Force, General Khaldoun Khattab, says that Iraq freed all the prisoners after the war. "It's possible he was seriously injured after he ejected from the plane, and there are lots of wolves in the area," Khattab says.

The case may never be solved. Admiral Arthur is tormented by the question of what happened to the flier.

"My worst fear was what happens if someday he shows up in Baghdad on a TV screen and it's a surprise to everybody," says Arthur. "How would you explain that?"

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