Forgotten Flier: U.S. Navy Pilot Michael Scott Speicher Was Shot Down during the Persian Gulf War and Classified as `Killed in Action' despite Reports That He Survived. Did He Ultimately Die Because of Pentagon Inaction, or Could He Still Be Alive in an Iraqi Prison More Than a Decade Later? (Cover Story)

Article excerpt

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.

Until now.

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. …


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