- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 16, 2002

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday the Pentagon is investigating whether a Navy pilot shot down in the Persian Gulf war is alive in Iraq.
"We have a very real interest in his circumstance, if he's alive indeed, in knowing about his circumstance, even if he's not alive," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
"And one would hope and pray that he is alive. We do not know," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.
The defense secretary was asked about the case of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher after a series of reports on the case that appeared in this week's editions of The Washington Times.
A U.S. intelligence report made public this week states that Cmdr. Speicher, who was lost when his F-18 plane was shot down over Iraq in 1991, "probably survived the loss of his aircraft, and if he survived, he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis."
Cmdr. Speicher was initially declared killed in action in 1991, but new evidence in later years led to a reversal of the designation. In January 2001, the Pentagon reclassified him as missing in action. It was the first time the Pentagon had ever made such a status change.
Mr. Rumsfeld said "a very serious effort" is under way on the part of the U.S. government over "a sustained period to try and gather as much information as possible."
Some of the information about the case is classified and some is unclassified, he said.
"Some of it is speculation," Mr. Rumsfeld said. "Some of it most of it is unauthoritative. That is to say, it is coming from people who heard from somebody about something, or believe there might be a situation that could be characterized as encouraging from our standpoint."
Pressed on whether there is evidence Cmdr. Speicher is alive in Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld said: "I've answered that to the best of my ability."
Mr. Rumsfeld said he read The Times articles and, "I have not seen any current intelligence in the last week that would enable me to cast any additional light" on the case.
Mr. Rumsfeld said he has reviewed intelligence data over the past year "because we're interested" in the case.
U.S. intelligence officials, however, said new information about the case was obtained from a foreign intelligence service in the past several months, indicating Iraq is holding an American pilot captive.
The report based on information from someone who had been inside Iraq stated that the pilot was being kept in isolation and only two Iraqi officials would see him.
President Bush also commented on the Speicher case this week. Mr. Bush suggested the pilot could be alive and said if he were, it would show the cruelty of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
Mr. Bush said he "wouldn't put it past him, given the fact that he gassed his own people" a reference to Saddam's ordering of chemical-weapons attacks on Kurdish separatists in northern Iraq in the late 1980s.
The intelligence community report dated March 27, 2001, stated that a team of investigators visited Cmdr. Speicher's crash site in 1995 and determined that the pilot ejected.
The investigators also believe Iraq is concealing information about the fate of the pilot and once supplied human remains to U.S. officials that upon laboratory testing turned out not to be Cmdr. Speicher's.
U.S. officials said the intelligence regarding the case includes numerous agent reports of an American pilot being held prisoner in Iraq.
"There are at least three independent sources," one official said.
Some U.S. intelligence officials have tried to dismiss the reports, saying Saddam would not keep an American pilot hostage and would have used him for propaganda if he was a captive.
However, other officials said Saddam held an Iranian pilot prisoner for 17 years, while denying Iraq held any prisoners from the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
The State Department said this week that it questioned Iraqi officials about Cmdr. Speicher's fate during a meeting in Geneva. The Iraqis did not respond, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.


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