U.S. forces hunt for pilot from '91 war
March 30, 2003
Specially trained U.S. forces behind enemy lines in Iraq are searching for evidence regarding the fates or whereabouts of allied prisoners of war, including Jacksonville-based Navy pilot Capt. Scott Speicher, whose F/A-18 fighter jet went down in the opening hours of the Persian Gulf War 12 years ago.
Speicher, initially thought killed in action Jan. 17, 1991, was reportedly seen alive on several recent occasions, including early this month by an informant near Baghdad, according to Amy Waters Yarsinske, a former U.S. Naval Reserve intelligence officer and expert on POWs and those missing in action.
Lt. Cmdr. James Brooks, a spokesman for the Defense Intelligence Agency, would not comment on Speicher's status. But he noted that special military units are in Iraq on a variety of missions, including searching for the Jacksonville pilot and father of two.
"Some of the missions and objectives in Operation Iraqi Freedom are to collect intelligence on Iraqi networks and on their illicit weapons of mass destruction. Determining a full accounting of Capt. Speicher, whether he is alive or dead, is also part of that mission," Brooks said.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, who has pushed for information on Speicher, said last week that he too thinks the Navy pilot is still alive, based on a recent intelligence briefing that included reports from defectors and European intelligence agencies.
"I believe he is still alive," Nelson said. "The question is: Can we find him and bring him home alive?"
Nelson, D-Fla., said Speicher may have been seen in the custody of Iraqi authorities in the past month.
"I have talked to most of the military commanders, and I am convinced that Speicher is one of their top priorities as they go into Iraq," Nelson said. "They are looking for him."
Medical records found
Yarsinske, who spent eight years researching and writing a book about Speicher that alleges negligence in the military investigation of his disappearance, said there is other ample evidence of his survival.
In her book, No One Left Behind, Yarsinske reported that U.N. weapons inspectors in Iraq in 1997 discovered medical records kept on Speicher. The inspectors, who could not legally seize the records, reported they showed the pilot had had at least two physicals and was in good health. An Iraqi defector confirmed that he also saw Speicher's medical reports, she said.
Brooks would not offer comment on the validity of specific reports, he said.
"We have been getting intelligence reports like that on a regular basis since [the wreckage of] his aircraft was discovered," Brooks said. "Many are second and third accounts. We investigate every one of them, but I won't get into the credibility of the sources."
An attorney for Speicher's family said that family members would not discuss his case.
"Our goal is still to bring Scott home," Cindy A. Laquidara said.
Lost in opening assault
Speicher flew off the carrier USS Saratoga for a bombing run over Iraq in the opening air assault of the Gulf War. Another F/A-18 Hornet pilot saw a flash and lost sight of Speicher's plane during heavy fighting. The pilot was thought to be the first casualty of the Gulf War.
About five years later, there were intelligence reports that his plane had crash-landed and that the pilot had ejected. Speicher's intact flight suit was found during a Red Cross mission in Iraq. The wreckage of his plane, which had been tampered with, was inspected by U.S. intelligence agents.
Based on that information and other intelligence reports that he had been seen alive and was being held captive, the Navy reclassified Speicher as missing in action in 2001. In October, his status was again changed to "missing in action, captured," which had the effect of declaring him to be a prisoner of war.
Iraqi officials have denied that the pilot was being held. They invited a U.S. team to visit Iraq last year to investigate and discuss his case, but the Pentagon and State Department declined the offer.
Saddam Hussein is known to hold prisoners of war for long periods without giving any hint of their existence or whereabouts, Nelson noted.
"He still has prisoners from the Iran-Iraq war, and the Kuwaitis are convinced that he also has from 300 to 600 of their people from the Gulf War, but he won't account for them, either," Nelson said.
The Iraqi dictator has long studied and followed the repressive ruling methods of Josef Stalin, who was also known to keep war prisoners secretly for years as possible bargaining chips, Yarsinske said.
'A terrible price to pay'
"I've heard it said that Scott is a personal insurance policy for Saddam and his sons. He obviously knows he is a valuable bargaining chip, and he may be the last item they use," the author said.
"They have kept him not for a rainy day but for a terrible thunderstorm. I'm sure there would be a terrible price to pay to get his release."