- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 12, 2002

The Navy changed the status of a pilot missing since the 1991 Persian Gulf war to "missing in action, captured" yesterday, effectively making Capt. Michael Scott Speicher an Iraqi prisoner of war.

Navy Secretary Gordon England made the decision in a memorandum yesterday. It was the second time in two years that the pilot's status has changed.

Capt. Speicher was first classified as "killed in action, body not recovered" after his F-18 jet was shot down near Baghdad on Jan. 17, 1991, the first night of the Persian Gulf war. He was a lieutenant commander at the time and has since been promoted.

However, based on intelligence information that Capt. Speicher survived the crash of his jet and that Iraq was holding an American pilot, last year then-Navy Secretary Richard Danzig changed the status to missing in action.

"Based on all the information now available, I believe the logical extension of Secretary Danzig's status determination and the more appropriate category for Capt. Speicher, is Missing/Captured," Mr. England said in the memorandum for the record.

The classification is given to service members who are "seized as a result of the action of an unfriendly military or paramilitary force in a foreign country," he said.

The new status does not mean the Pentagon knows Capt. Speicher's location, Mr. England said.

"Only Iraq can provide that information," he said. "Moreover, if the government of Iraq is holding Capt. Speicher, he is entitled to prisoner of war status under the Geneva Convention and would have been entitled to that status from the first day he came under Iraqi control."

Mr. England also said the fact that led to the change of status "would also support the conclusion that, if alive, he is a prisoner of war."

Mr. England listed four factors that led to his decision to change Capt. Speicher's status:

•Analysis of wreckage from Capt. Speicher's F-18 jet in the Iraqi desert showed that the pilot survived the initial damage from a ground-to-air missile and that he "ejected before the crash."

•A flight suit turned over by Iraq to the International Committee of the Red Cross in December 1995 appears to have been Capt. Speicher's suit and that he was not in the F-18 when it crashed.

•A team of investigators determined that the F-18 cockpit was "expertly excavated" before inspection and that all debris was removed.

•The information received since the shooting down of Capt. Speicher's F-18 jet "continues to suggest strongly that the government of Iraq can account for him."

Mr. England said there is no evidence to conclude that Capt. Speicher is dead but that information indicating he is alive and being held in Iraq is not definitive.

But he said, "I am personally convinced the Iraqis seized him sometime after his plane went down."

"Further, it is my firm belief that the government of Iraq knows what happened to Capt. Speicher," Mr. England said. "I am committed to resolving this matter and will continue to review and analyze all available information. It is my fervent hope that this change in category will hasten the necessary and long overdue accounting."

The Washington Times disclosed in March that intelligence information obtained several months earlier indicated that Baghdad was holding an American pilot believed to be Capt. Speicher.

A U.S. intelligence report produced in March 2001 stated, "We assess that Iraq can account for Capt. Speicher, but that Baghdad is concealing information about his fate."

The report also stated, "We assess Lt. Cmdr. Speicher was either captured alive or his remains were recovered and brought to Baghdad."

The report was ordered by the Senate Intelligence Committee and concluded that Capt. Speicher "probably survived the loss of his aircraft, and if he survived, he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis."

Capt. Speicher was not among the 21 U.S. military personnel released after the Gulf war cease-fire, and his remains were never recovered.

There have been several intelligence reports from Iraqi defectors and sources who were in Iraq during the 1990s indicating that Baghdad is holding an American pilot. One of those reports includes an Iraqi national who identified Capt. Speicher in a photograph as the captured pilot he drove to Baghdad six weeks after the Gulf war began.

Several senators have been pressing the Pentagon and the Navy to change Capt. Speicher's status, including Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, and Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican.

Mr. Roberts said in an interview that he is glad the Pentagon agreed after many months to change the status.

"It sends a message to his family and to the American men and women in the military that we are not going to leave anybody behind," Mr. Roberts said.

The senator said that if Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein is holding Capt. Speicher prisoner, he has a "window of opportunity" to release him.

Mr. Roberts, who formally requested that the status be changed to "prisoner of war," said the next step could be for a delegation to go to Iraq to try to resolve the case.

President Bush said in his speech on Iraq at the United Nations last month that Iraq has not accounted for missing prisoners, including an American pilot who White House officials later said was Capt. Speicher.

In March, the Iraqi government offered to allow a team of U.S. investigators to visit Iraq to look for Capt. Speicher. The Bush administration rejected the offer, saying Iraq had been uncooperative during such visits.

In July, the State Department issued a diplomatic note to Iraq, asking for new details about Capt. Speicher. The Iraqis did not respond.

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