Chicago Tribune Published March 12, 2002
Iraqi Says Gulf War U.S. Pilot Is Alive
By Christine Spolar
Tribune Foreign Correspondent
WASHINGTON -- U.S. intelligence agents are working to corroborate new information from an Iraqi defector that an American pilot shot down over Iraq a decade ago is alive and imprisoned by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, government sources said.
New evidence about the Navy pilot, Michael Scott Speicher, surfaced in late January. President Bush and top advisers in the State and Defense Departments were informed by intelligence agents that a one-time high-ranking military adviser to Hussein, who defected earlier this year, has information that the American pilot was alive as of January.
Speicher, who would be 44 today, was classified killed in action from 1991 until January 2001. The CIA, the Navy and President Clinton reviewed what were considered serious gaps in intelligence analysis concerning the
Speicher case. On Jan. 10, 2001, based on evidence that the pilot survived the crash and was seen in Iraq, Speicher was reclassified as missing in action.
The Iraqi defector first spoke earlier this year to Dutch intelligence about an imprisoned American pilot in Iraq. According to sources, the defector told interrogators that the American pilot in prison was in good health but walks with a limp and has facial scars. The defector has been deemed credible through his descriptions of both Speicher, whom he did not name, and his knowledge of prisons where the pilot is thought to have been held, sources said.
Bush is kept informed about the case, and Secretary of State Colin Powell is "very much engaged," according to another well-placed source. The imprisonment of Speicher, the first American lost in the war against Iraq in 1991, would have a powerful effect on, if not trigger a powerful reaction from, the Bush administration, which had made clear it wants Hussein ousted.
Attempts to verify the defector's claims intensified in February, sources said. Public comments by the administration regarding Iraq sharpened within the same week, including Powell's statement that the United States was weighing ways to topple Hussein.
The defector said the pilot had been held at Iraqi Intelligence Headquarters, the same building that the United States bombed in 1993 in retaliation for an assassination attempt on President George Bush, the father of the current president and the leader of the 1991 allied coalition against Iraq.
The defector told intelligence agents that the pilot was moved to a military facility on Sept. 12, the day after Islamic terrorists hijacked American airliners and drilled them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. The Iraqis feared reprisals from the United States and wanted to safeguard their captive, the defector told his interrogators.
The defector said only a handful of Iraqis are aware of the pilot's existence, and that Hussein and his son, Qusay, closely monitor his well-being, sources said.
Interest from administration
The case of Michael Scott Speicher appears to have a special resonance for the current administration. Bush's father led the allied force coalition in the gulf. Powell then was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Vice President Dick Cheney was secretary of defense.
Cheney's role is particularly sensitive because, during the first press briefing after the first strike in 1991, Cheney declared Speicher dead. That announcement was both premature and problematic for the military, which at the time was seeking information about the downing of Speicher's plane.
"This is important to them," said one source knowledgeable about the White House interest in the case. "The people in charge then are the people in charge now."
The Speicher case continues to generate interest in the Senate, which has been conducting an investigation on intelligence lapses in the case. Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee
and the Armed Services Committee, wrote to the Pentagon in February that Speicher should be listed as a prisoner of war.
Roberts said in his letter that changing the status would better reflect unanswered questions about the "exceptional and compelling" case of the missing fighter pilot. "If Capt. Speicher lives, we must make every effort to attain for him the freedom he has so long been denied. His case reaffirms to our nation, albeit somewhat belatedly, that we will never abandon our soldiers even if some embarrassment falls to our government," Roberts wrote to Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
Declared missing in action
Speicher was listed as killed in action from May 1991, four months after the war. He was reclassified as missing in action--in an unprecedented decision by the Navy--nearly 10 years later, in January 2001. The change in status occurred in the last days of the Clinton administration. Congressional inquiries and extensive media reports raised serious questions about whether the airman, in fact, had died after his F/A-18 was hit by enemy fire over Iraq.
The New York Times first reported that Speicher's shattered plane was discovered in the desert in 1993 by a Qatar source and that the Joint Chiefs of Staff balked at embarking on a secret mission to recover the body. The newspaper reported that a mission, conducted with Iraq's knowledge, was not completed until late 1995. No evidence of the pilot was found, it was reported.
CBS' "60 Minutes II" later reported that in the days and weeks after the shootdown in 1991, U.S. forces never searched for Speicher because they believed the plane to be a total loss. The CBS program noted that
investigators who went to the crash site in 1995 had found no human remains or other evidence that Speicher had died.
The network also revealed that American military and intelligence circles were grappling with some startling new information in 1999. There was another Iraqi defector, who was interrogated by American intelligence and
passed multiple polygraph tests, who claimed he had driven a pilot who fit Speicher's description to a military facility outside Baghdad during the first week of the war.
CIA acts after broadcast
The CIA analysis was ordered within weeks of the broadcast and, in December 2000, a classified accounting of the Speicher case was sent to the Navy, the National Security Council and Clinton. The 100-plus page document, which remains classified, asserted that Speicher's jet was hit by an Iraqi air-to-air missile, that there was a successful ejection and that the Iraqi source who described driving him after the shootdown was credible.
In a seven-page declassified version of facts released last year, the CIA asserted that Speicher probably survived being shot down, and "if he survived, he was almost certainly captured by the Iraqis." As a result of Speicher's reclassification to missing in action in January 2001, the United States sent a formal demarche to Iraq demanding information about him.
Clinton: He `might be alive'
In a radio interview then, Clinton said that Speicher "might be alive" and "if he is . . . we're going to do everything to get him out." Iraq rebuffed inquiries about Speicher and indicated, as Iraqi officials had told reporters, that he might have been eaten by wolves in the desert.
Inquiries by the United Nations and the Tripartite Commission responsible for missing soldiers from the gulf war provided no new information. Late in 2001, the Iraq government issued its first written response to the Tripartite Commission, denying knowledge of Speicher.
Speicher, a lieutenant commander at the time of the war, has been promoted to commander in the past year, and, more recently, to captain. His wife, who has since remarried, and children have been compensated with back pay for their loss over the past decade. The family has maintained a strict silence on the case.