Tuesday, June 24, 2003

A special U.S. intelligence team in Iraq has searched a half-dozen graves and more than 40 locations in Iraq but has not found missing naval aviator Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, defense officials say.

A team of about 40 intelligence officers dedicated solely to the search for Capt. Speicher, who has been missing since his F-18 jet was shot down over Iraq in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, is continuing to hunt for the pilot.

Capt. Speicher initially was declared killed in action. Later intelligence and an investigation of his aircraft’s wreckage showed he ejected from the F-18 and probably survived the crash.

Numerous intelligence reports in the 1990s indicated Iraq was holding an American pilot prisoner, and the Navy reclassified Capt. Speicher as “missing-captured” based on those reports.

“The team has been to approximately half a dozen grave sites in Iraq and has come up empty,” said a defense official familiar with the reports of the Speicher search team.

Another defense official said one body had been exhumed to determine if it was the remains of Capt. Speicher.

No bodies were checked from the other grave sites because the apparent dates of death did not coincide with that of Capt. Speicher’s downing.

The defense officials also said the Speicher search team has visited more than 50 locations in Iraq since April, when they were dispatched from Kuwait.

“The sites include prisons, hospitals, security archives and even residences,” the first official said.

Intelligence reports before the Iraq war stated that Capt. Speicher had been held at several residences in Iraq.

Asked about the effort, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters yesterday that he had read two reports on the case.

Investigators “are focused on the issue, attentive to it, addressing it directly when human intelligence offers suggestions as to how leads might be addressed directly,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

Captured Iraqi officials are being asked about Capt. Speicher during interrogations, he said.

Defense officials said every captured senior Iraqi official is asked what he knows of Capt. Speicher.

Mr. Rumsfeld suggested there is new information about the case. He said there is “nothing that has been turned up thus far that I could elaborate on that would be appropriate.”

Documents obtained from Iraqi prisons and government buildings also are being searched for any information on what happened to Capt. Speicher.

One key clue that the pilot may have been held prisoner was the discovery in April of the initials “MSS” scratched into the wall of a cell in the Hakmiyah prison in Baghdad.

The Army’s Criminal Investigative Division is trying determine if Capt. Speicher wrote his initials on the wall.

Intelligence from an Iraqi defector had stated that Capt. Speicher at one time was held in the Hakmiyah prison. A spokesman for the CID declined to comment on what it said was an ongoing investigation of the initials.

The Speicher search team has medical records that could be used to identify remains, the officials said.

Investigators are prepared to use DNA testing in the effort.

The search team is made up of specialists from throughout the intelligence community as well as officials from the office of the secretary of defense, the Joint Staff, and U.S. Special Operations personnel.

“It’s a multidisciplinary collection and analytical team,” one official said.

“This is a significant effort,” said a second official. “The men and women in the military can take comfort that we are working to resolve this issue and that we have devoted significant resources to do that.”

Meanwhile, Mr. Rumsfeld declined to provide details on the shooting incident near Iraq’s border with Syria on June 18. A Special Forces command team known as Task Force 20 carried out the raid on a vehicle convoy.

Mr. Rumsfeld said he did not believe any senior Iraqi officials were killed in the raid.

“There were good reasons to believe that the vehicles that were violating the curfew that existed in that area were doing it for reasons other than normal commerce,” Mr. Rumsfeld said.

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