- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 13, 2002

As the president has shown the world, we need no additional reasons to justify military action to end Saddam Hussein's threats to peace. Still, the need to resolve the disappearance of Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher may accelerate the timetable for action. Cmdr. Speicher was the first American lost in the 1991 Gulf War. His F-18 Hornet was apparently shot down west of Baghdad in the early morning hours of Jan. 17. After Kuwait was freed and the tenuous cease-fire agreement reached, the Iraqi government returned remains of a person that was supposed to be Cmdr. Speicher. Later DNA and blood type testing revealed that it was not. The mystery surrounding his disappearance has been detailed this week in Bill Gertz's reports in The Washington Times. Intelligence sources now believe that Cmdr. Speicher may be alive and a prisoner in Iraq.

There are several intelligence reports that could lead to that conclusion. In one, an Iranian pilot who was repatriated recently to Iran said that he had seen an American held captive in Iraq. Another said that a new agent who had recently been in Iraq discovered information that an American pilot was being held in Baghdad. Still another said that an intelligence agent offered to get a picture of the prisoner and to give us his precise location. A British report said that only two people Saddam's son, Uday Hussein, and the chief of Iraq's intelligence services were permitted to see an American still being held captive.

A 1999 Defense Department report says that an investigation of aircraft wreckage near where Cmdr. Speicher's fighter went down showed that his flight suit had been cut off his body, indicating he was alive and probably injured when he landed. The investigations continue, and Iraq ignores our demands for information. An intelligence report dated March 2001 says that Iraq is believed to be concealing information about Cmdr. Speicher's fate. In an unprecedented move in January of last year, the Defense Department reclassified Cmdr. Speicher from "killed in action" to "missing in action." There must be good reason to believe he is still alive.

America has a moral obligation to every soldier it sends into harm's way. That obligation imposes several duties, not the least of which is to ensure that every soldier captured by the enemy is returned when the war ends, either dead or alive. At this point, the new intelligence reports, and the remarkable reclassification of Cmdr. Speicher's status, compel the president to make this case a priority. From the moment Michael Scott Speicher's parachute opened, he was entitled to the protections afforded every prisoner of war. If he is still alive, the Iraqis must surrender him immediately.

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