Sunday, January 04, 2009

Closing the Speicher Case?

Navy F/A-18 pilot Scott Speicher. He disappeared after his jet was shot down over Iraq in January 1991, but his fate has never been determine (DoD photo via Wikipedia).

The Navy will hold a hearing Monday on the status of Captain Scott Speicher, the F/A-18 pilot who disappeared on the opening night of Operation Desert Storm almost 18 years ago.

Members of the Speicher family believe that Navy Secretary Donald Winter is moving toward changing the aviator's status from missing/captured to killed. Speicher was initially listed as killed in the hours after his jet went down over Iraq in January 1991. However, his status was changed to "missing in action," based on an absence of evidence that he died.

A decade later, in October 2002, the service revised Speicher's status again, listing him as "missing/captured," although the Navy never explained the reason for the change. The revision came just months before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

The fall of Baghdad in April 2003 brought what many believed was a new, tantalizing clue. Inside a prison in the Iraqi capital, investigators found the initials "M.S.S" carved into the wall of a cell. Some believed that the letters stood for "Michael Scott Speicher," the pilot's full name.

However, other officials discounted that possibility, noting that the initials "M.J.N." were found directly above M.S.S. The second set of initials do not correspond to any western POW known to be held by the former Iraqi regime. Speicher's name appeared on a list of prisoners held by Saddam's government, dated January 2003, but the document did not detail his location, or whether he was still alive.

This much we know: in the early hours of Desert Storm, then-Lieutenant Commander Speicher was part of an F/A-18 formation that launched from the carrier USS Saratoga. His Hornet went down in a fireball west of Baghdad. Originally, intel analysts believed that a surface-to-air missile was responsible for the shoot down, but later assessments attribute the kill to an Iraqi Air Force MiG-25. It was the only American loss on the first night of the air war.

But there is strong evidence that Speicher survived the engagement. The wreckage of his F/A-18 was found in the Iraqi desert, and examined by U.S. experts. No human remains were found at the site, and it appears that Speicher ejected from his aircraft. Additionally, the pilot's escape and evasion "letter" was found carved into the desert near the crash site. The sign is unique to each pilot or aircrew member and is used to signal that the missing airman survived the shootdown, and is attempting to evade the enemy.

At that point, the trail grows cold, except for those clues recovered in Baghdad five years ago, and occasional human intelligence reports that claimed Speicher was alive, and being held by Saddam. In other words, enough evidence to suggest that the Navy pilot might be alive, but not enough to prove it conclusively.

Officially, the Navy hasn't said if it plans to change Speicher's status. The Defense Intelligence Agency, which is responsible for tracking (and investigating) POW-MIA cases, completed its last report on the matter six months ago. But the agency hasn't said if it has new, conclusive evidence on what happened to Speicher, who has been promoted to the rank of Captain in his absence.

For years, the Speicher family has been pressing the Pentagon for a more complete accounting of his fate. And, they certainly have a point, because serious errors were made in the early stages of Captain Speicher's disappearance. For example, no rescue team was ever dispatched after his F/A-18 went down, despite robust capabilities that existed in theater. American investigators didn't actually visit the crash site until years later, raising the possibility that critical evidence disappeared, or was possibly removed from that location.

Barring the recent discovery of definitive evidence, we can't understand why the Navy might be pushing to close the Speicher case. In fact, the most obvious rationale is also the most odious: by declaring Captain Speicher dead, the service can officially "wrap up" the matter, and eliminate some aggravating details.

That means no more intelligence collection or analysis related to his disappearance, and the end of monthly pay and allowances for Speicher's family, which totals more than $116,000 a year. Put another way, the military could save a fair amount of money by declaring the Captain dead and the matter resolved. Changing his status could also improve relations with Baghdad, getting them off the hook for solving an issue that began with the previous regime.

Closing the case would also end something of a public relations headache for the Pentagon. Currently, Captain Speicher is the only American service member--from any war--who is still listed as being held by the enemy. It's an issue that always surfaces at Congressional hearings on POW-MIA affairs, and sometimes generates embarrassing questions. Listing Speicher as "dead" would resolve that issue, too.

Sadly, not all MIA cases can be resolved, even in an age of DNA testing and satellite imagery. We may never know what happened to Scott Speicher on that January night in 1991, but the Navy has not presented a definitive case for declaring him dead. As the family's attorney has noted, the Speicher example will set a precedent for future MIA cases, and there's a need for further investigation before considering a status change.

We owe that much to Scott Speicher.


SwampWoman said...

Yes, we do. We owe that much to his family, too.

billmill said...

One thing I can never understand is why was an extensive rescue mission not launched. I have read conflicting stories of why, Spook do you have information from your sources?