A decade ago Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher was the forgotten man. The 33-year-old U.S. Navy pilot, whose friends called him "Spike" was shot down in his F-18 Hornet over west-central Iraq on the first night of the Persian Gulf War on Jan. 17,1991. No heroic search-and-rescue missions were launched. No one even asked what happened.
Prompted by long-held secret intelligence and eyewitness reports that claim Speicher survived the crash and was taken to a Baghdad hospital, Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.), a former Marine and senior member of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, fired off a stern letter in February to Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld requesting that Speicher be reclassified a prisoner of war (POW). If granted, it would mark the second time Speicher's status has been changed. In 1991 the Navy reclassified him from killed in action (KIA) to missing in action (MIA). "I believe he is a P0W," Roberts tells INSIGHT.
INSIGHT sources say the Roberts letter has created a firestorm at the Pentagon pitting stubborn elements in Undersecretary of Defense for policy Doug Feith's policy shop, who oppose reclassification, against senior ranking Pentagon officials, who believe Speicher indeed may be a POW. Feith's people drafted a letter to Roberts outlining reasons why the senator's request should be denied, but Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz refused to sign off on it, snapping that Roberts is correct.
In the meantime, Iraq has issued an open invitation to send a delegation to investigate the Speicher case. Policymakers "have frozen it, and it's not going anywhere" according to a senior Pentagon source. "Once the policymakers get something, it goes into a black hole."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) recently warned on the Senate floor that Iraq's offer could be just a charade, but that he hopes President George W. Bush will appoint a "high-level delegation" to ask some hard questions. "For example, this eyewitness account that he was driven to the hospital from the crash site--what hospital?" asked Nelson. "Let's see the records of the hospital. If he was re leased from the hospital, where was he sent? Was he sent to prison? What prison? Let's see the records of that prison. Let's see the tangible evidence so we can know the rate of Cmdr. Scott Speicher." With no movement on whether a delegation will be sent, there is concern that Speicher will be forgotten again. "The U.S. military has a creed among pilots that when you have to punch out, you are going to have a rescue team that will come get you" Nelson told the Senate. "Against all odds, they will come, try to find you and get you out alive. This awful question hangs over the Cmdr. Scott Speicher case that we abandoned him."
While Nelson has tried to raise awareness, Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.) is trying to get cosponsors for his Persian Gulf War POW/MIA Accountability Act (S 1339), which would provide asylum to defectors who might help bring Speicher back alive. "Under this bill, if Lt. Cmdr. Speicher were found olive and returned home, the person who helped him, as well as his family, would be granted refugee status in the United States," Campbell says. So far, he has attracted just nine cosponsors.
Evidence that Speicher survived the downing of his plane has been available for years. An unclassified CIA report issued in 2001, entitled "Intelligence Community Assessment of the Lt. Cmdr. Speicher Case" is based on intelligence data nearly a decade old. The report, ordered by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, found: "Iraq can account for Lt. Cmdr. Speicher ... [but] is concealing information about his fate. Speicher probably survived the loss of his aircraft, and if he survived he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis"
The report says Speicher ejected with at least an "85 to 90 percent chance of surviving." It says Baghdad's "efforts to recover coalition airmen downed over Iraqi-controlled territory were highly successful.... We assess Speicher was either captured alive or his remains were recovered and brought to Baghdad."
The CIA report contradicts a decade of lies and deceit concerning the fate of Speicher. Sources familiar with intelligence briefings on the matter characterize the case as a "conspiracy of incompetence" in which a series of mistakes and failures to share intelligence led to the abandonment of a Navy pilot considered to be one of the best aviators in the gulf war.
The first mistake was made in 1991 when, on the basis of the early evidence, then-defense secretary Dick Cheney declared Speicher to be dead. The pilot had not signaled for help through his radio and had failed to turn on his emergency-locator transmitter, which downed pilots routinely turned off out of fear the Iraqis would pick up the signals. Witnesses did not see a parachute--only a fireball that they assumed had consumed Speicher and his Hornet.
The Pentagon brass decided Speicher's fighter jet suffered a direct hit from a surface-to-air missile. But Navy pilot Spock Anderson, who was on the same mission, repeatedly told anyone who would listen that "it was a MiG that shot Spike down." No one listened--until it was learned the CIA had concluded in its report last year that it was indeed an air-to-air missile that downed Speicher. By then this intelligence finding had been kept secret for nearly a decade.
Mark Crispin Miller, a professor of media studies at New York University who reviewed the shootdown, concludes that the Pentagon "got caught up in a cover-up of his death" while pushing to get Congress to upgrade the F-18 Hornets. "The Pentagon played down that an Iraqi MiG shot down the plane because the F-18 was up for a valuable contract renewal" Miller says. "They
would not want it out that a MiG shot down that plane." The contract was renewed.
When the war ended, Speicher's name was not carried either on a POW or MIA list. As a result, the fluke shoot-down of a Hornet by a MiG and a "subsequent cover-up could be the likely cause of his death today," Miller says.
The Iraqi government did return 21 U.S. military personnel, but the CIA intelligence-summary report says Iraq's government learned Speicher had been declared dead and, as a result, felt it could keep him. To quiet rumors, Iraq sent a "soft-tissue fragment and hair-bearing skin," which Baghdad claimed belonged to a pilot named "Mickel." DNA analysis determined the remains were not from Michael Scott Speicher.
Saddam Hussein's regime in time claimed Speicher was devoured by wolves. Rather than question the latest story, the late Adm. Mike Boorda, then chief of Naval operations, approved and signed a confirmation letter on May 22, 1991, declaring Speicher "killed in action, body not recovered" He did not ask for further accountability.
The death declaration seemed final. Speicher's wife, Joanne, and their two young children moved on with their lives. She remarried. Speicher's children, Meghan, now 14, and Michael, now 12, embrace their father only in memories and photographs, says family spokeswoman Cindy Lacquidara, a Jacksonville attorney. The family declined INSIGHT's requests for interviews.
"It's been extremely stressful for them," Lacquidara says. "They are trying to maintain faith in the government to bring him home."
Speicher's nephew Richard Adams, 27, adds that his uncle would have been the first volunteer to bring a veteran home. "Everybody liked him," Adams says. "Scott was the best pilot in his squadron, a true leader, a devout Christian and a role model. We need closure--that's the bottom line."
In 1998 the Speicher family filed a lawsuit against Motorola, accusing the electronics company of having made an inferior locator product that pilots claimed was too large to fit a flight-suit pocket and risked being lost when a pilot had to eject. "We dropped the lawsuit because it was interfering with our relationship with the Pentagon" Lacquidara says.
Speicher meanwhile had received full honors at Arlington National Cemetery, where a tombstone bears his name. Florida State University announced plans to build the Scott Speicher Memorial Tennis Center. Speicher's church, Lake Shore Methodist, where he taught Sunday school, built a memorial for the pilot, whom the Navy will promote to the rank of captain in July.
The Pentagon, insisting he was dead, had closed the case in December 1991. Then the unthinkable happened. In 1993, the hunting party of a Qatari general tracking exotic animals in the Iraqi desert made a miraculous discovery. It found Speicher's jet with the engines intact, making it unlikely that his Hornet was struck by a ground-based missile and supporting Anderson's claim that the aircraft was brought down by a MiG. The hunting party took photographs of the find. The ejection seat and canopy, or the bubble that covers the cockpit, were found erect a mile away. An even more startling find was a pilot's flight suit abandoned near the canopy. It was cut and slightly burned with small traces of what was presumed to be blood.
The Qatari general immediately forwarded to U.S. military officials his carefully shot pictures and a shard of metal with serial numbers, which U.S. authorities identified as being from Speicher's F-18 Hornet. The Pentagon then reviewed its 1991 satellite photos of the area and detected a man-made symbol erected near the ejection seat. The symbol was one that pilots are trained to leave behind when making a run for safe ground. It did not match Speicher's assigned mark, but the Pentagon says it clearly was hand drawn.
It was decided somewhere among the brass not to tell Joanne Speicher about the find. No one believed her husband could have survived an Iraqi winter in the middle of the desert with likely second-degree burns and possible broken bones.
Yet, with so many unanswered questions, the United States quietly began reviewing its options. It could send a covert team into the area or opt for a diplomatic solution by working in tandem with the Iraqi government and the International Committee of the Red Cross to find out the fate of Speicher. The Clinton administration chose the latter--much to the disappointment of gulf-war veterans who were convinced this would only buy time for Saddam's regime to bury evidence.
But Gen. John Shalikashvili, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, is said ultimately to have persuaded Clinton defense secretary William Cohen to nix the covert operation. The general reportedly put it to Cohen in politically correct terms: "I don't want to be the one to write letters home to parents telling them that their son or daughter died looking for old bones."
Speicher's family had to be told now, because the story shortly would become public. It also meant one of the crash investigators, Albert Harris, had to confide to the Pentagon that in 1993 he had married Speicher's wife, Joanne. Harris was determined to get to the truth behind what happened to Scott-- for the sake of Joanne and the children.
When Speicher was shot down, his wife was told "everything had been done," Lacquidara says. "They were continuing to search." In 1991 the family was given this message: "All repeat: all--theater combat search-and-rescue efforts were being mobilized." But in fact "there was no search" Lacquidara says. "They dropped the ball. A number of people did."
Briefed by INSIGHT on the family's description of what happened, Sen. Roberts replies: "That's pretty accurate. It's outrageous we told her there was a search. We left somebody behind! He has got to be out there wondering when on Earth his country is going to come and get him. I'm not saying there was a cover-up, but there is considerable embarrassment to the government. Out U.S. intelligence analysts showed clearly that he survived the crash. I believe he survived the crash, was hospitalized and taken to prison."
When the Red Cross team found the crash site, it brought more pain to the Speicher family. They wondered why the Pentagon didn't bother to look at the coordinates from its own 1991 satellite photo when the jet went down. "You should always launch a search and rescue," Lacquidara says. "I just don't believe it was too dangerous."
Instead the "search and rescue" was left to the beneficence of Saddam. In February 1995, the Clinton administration formally asked permission from Iraq to excavate the F-18 crash site, but Baghdad delayed the matter until late October 1995. The Red Cross crash team finally was granted access to excavate the site from Dec. 9-16,1995.
Sen. Robert Smith (R-N.H.), a senior member on the Senate Armed Services Committee whose own father, a Navy pilot, was killed at the end of World War II, was briefed by the Pentagon's POW/ MIA unit about the excavation. He was told the Red Cross team had found nothing to indicate Speicher survived. Later, he received reports from the Pentagon's Inspector General and the General Accounting Office, praising the intelligence agencies' role regarding Speicher.
Case closed? Not quite. A few weeks later, Smith began to hear from his intelligence sources claiming there was more to the story. He soon verified both that there was no search for Speicher when he was shot down in 1991 and that there was evidence in hand that he had survived. "I was misled," he says. "I was lied to. There are people whose heads should roll for lying to Congress, lying to me. But this isn't about me. The issue is let's bring him home, let's get the answers"
In 1995 a series of crash-site experts ranging from aviation engineers to anthropologists filed reports to the Pentagon. These reports were classified, but information from other sources began to leak to Smith. Many of the records some of which have been declassified and obtained by INSIGHT--sharply contradict what Smith had been told. Crash investigators reported Speicher's Hornet did not blow to pieces in the sky. The F-18 was found right-side up, and many of its pieces (including the engines, which had no entrance or exit wounds) were in a circle.
Investigators also determined the wreckage had been previously examined. A pilot's jumpsuit was round along with straps of a parachute and such survival items as an inflatable raft and a signaling flare. The flare apparently had been lit on both ends atone time.
The jet's damaged memory unit revealed the flight had taken off Jan. 17, 1991, at 1:36 a.m. Seven minutes later it experienced a computer failure that may have made as many as three missiles inoperative. Nearly two hours later Speicher's ALR-67 radar-warning receiver went on, which may have meant a complete failure of the radar system, making him unable to detect threats from air or land. At 3:49 a.m. the pilot turned off his autopilot, and a few seconds later the Hornet lost power after being struck.
Engineers reported the rocket motors that push the canopy off for ejection had burn marks on the frame, which meant a good ejection had taken place. Further evidence shows that up until Speicher's ejection at least 58 air-crew members had ejected from F-18s. Six were killed, but while the others were injured from either the initial jolt or parachute landing, 52 survived.
In 1996, Congress received a partial briefing on the Speicher case--just enough details to support another Navy claire that he was killed in action. When the case was closed again, Smith was livid. He, and later Sen. Roberts, began pressing to have Speicher's status changed to MIA. Branded by the Pentagon brass as a "troublemaker," Smith soon was taking heavy flak.
"The intelligence community trashed me" for poking around the Speicher case, Smith tells INSIGHT. "They told me it was `unfortunate' and asked what `relevance' is it that he is alive or not? What relevance?! America should not give up. We should leave no soldier behind. Period! We should do our best whether he is dead or alive."
In December 1997, the New York Times published a story detailing previously unpublished reports on the case. The article suggested that Speicher may have survived the crash and that the Clinton administration deliberately may have misled Congress about his fate. Smith fired off letters to the secretary of defense and requested meetings with the Pentagon and POW/MIA offices. He also asked Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), then-chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, to open an investigation into the matter. Shelby promptly instigated a probe, ordering CIA Director George Tenet to release computer files, documents, raw intelligence reports and every detail the agency had on Speicher.
The probe was ongoing when an Iraqi defector came forward in 1999 with an astonishing story. He claimed he had driven an American pilot from the crash site to a hospital. Intelligence officials asked the defector to pick the pilot out of a photo lineup. He selected Speicher. The defector passed two lie-detector tests. When agents attempted to trick him by claiming there was a huge reward for information leading to another pilot who was shot down, the defector stuck to his story, saying Speicher was the only one he had picked up.
With the defector's account as evidence, Smith continued pushing for a change of status. He got it on Jan. 11, 2001, when Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig changed Speicher's status from KIA to MIA. No American veteran in any war ever had been removed from the KIA list and declared MIA instead. The Navy announced it quietly in a four-paragraph statement, but it created a media frenzy. For the Speicher family it brought a new sense of hope and monthly stipends of about $6,000.
President Bill Clinton replied to a flurry of reporters' questions by saying, "We have some information that leads us to believe he might be alive. And we hope and pray that he is. But we have already begun working to try to determine whether in fact he's alive; if he is, where he is; and how we can get him out." When reporters pressed Clinton he explained, "All I want to say is we have evidence which convinced me that we can't ensure that he perished. I don't want to hold out false hope, but I thought it was wrong to continue to classify him as killed in action when he might not have been."
Why did they wait nearly eight years after finding the Hornet to change Speicher's status? Today, neither Smith nor Roberts have the answer. More recently, Bill Gertz of the Washington Times reported that the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency had been provided with British intelligence accounts claiming that Speicher was being held in a prison where he is visited by the chief of Iraq's intelligence service and Uday Hussein, son of Saddam. Britain has denied the report.
Would Saddam hold a prisoner that long? If history is any indication, the answer is yes. On April 19, 1998, Iraq agreed to release prisoners of the Iran/ Iraq war, which was fought from 1980 to 1988. Nearly 60,000 soldiers were exchanged between the two countries. Iranian pilot Hossein Lashgari, whose plane was shot down Sept. 18, 1980, in southern Iraq at the beginning of the war, had been held for 17 years.
Professor Miller doubts Speicher is alive today. In fact, he and others on the left have charged the administration with using the Speicher case to gain sympathy for an invasion of Iraq. "I fully understand the emotional desire by Speicher's comrades and loved ones to find him if he's alive," Miller says. "But I still don't think there is any reason he survived that encounter. Why is all this coming up 10 years after the fact? You have to be naive to think it is unrelated to the large, ambitious, war drive that the government is now carrying out for a new invasion of Iraq."
Asked if it is a propaganda ploy, Roberts snaps, "That's bullshit. Those charges are really out of line. They better not say that to my face"
Miller responds, "I'm not saying it isn't true. Truth can be used as propaganda."
But if Speicher is alive and could be brought back to walk into Congress, what might Roberts say? "I don't think I could find the words. I don't know. I would be so overcome in tears that I would ask if this old Marine could give him a hug. That's where it would be"
TIMOTHY W. MAIER IS A WRITER FOR Insight.…