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Posted: 5/15/2003 5:19:10 AM EDT
Wednesday, May 14, 2003
Scott Speicher left in Iraq to save face?

Posted: May 14, 2003
5:00 p.m. Eastern

By Timothy W. Maier

When former Sen. Robert Smith of New Hampshire lost his re-election bid last year, he turned to a Republican colleague, Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, and urged the tough old ex-Marine to find a way to prosecute those who failed to rescue Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, the Navy aviator who was shot down over Iraq during Gulf War I on Jan. 17, 1991. Roberts vowed he would.

Roberts, now chairman of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, has quite a job ahead of him. He will need to filter through thousands of pages of intelligence documents that leave a disturbing trail of evidence which suggests senior ranking officials in the Pentagon and the White House ignored evidence indicating that Speicher survived and has been held captive for 12 years.

"I am not going to let it drop, even if Speicher is found alive," Roberts tells Insight. "If we have to bring in people who have retired or left office, we will do that. We never even had a full intelligence assessment of the Speicher case."

While Smith and Roberts still are seething about the number of people who lied or misled Congress in the case, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., also has been demanding an independent investigation into the matter. But all probes are on hold for now.

"First we have to determine his fate," says Roberts, who is briefed every week on the status of the case. He says additional search-team members are preparing to leave for Iraq.
"There is no question in my mind that he survived the shootdown," Roberts says. And much of the evidence supporting Roberts' claim has been around for years, including reports from a falcon hunter who found Speicher's F-18 Hornet intact in the desert, which conflicted with the Navy's story that the plane was blown to pieces. The International Committee of the Red Cross visited the crash site and found the ejection seat, canopy and flight suit near the plane. This physical evidence, combined with numerous credible Speicher sightings and Iraqi medical records suggesting the Navy pilot was treated in a Baghdad hospital, have convinced a sea of supporters that he survived.

More compelling may be what a military satellite picked up in 1994. It appears to be a ground-to-air signal found near Speicher's crash site. The Clinton administration's imagery analysts claimed it was not a distress signal, but there was sharp disagreement within the ranks.

The Navy lied when it claimed rescue missions were launched, Roberts says. No rescue mission ever was launched.

It took the capture of Iraq by U.S. forces before an official search was begun. The search team, composed of both CIA and military-intelligence agents, has been combing through prison cells and underground tunnels in search of clues to Speicher's fate. So far the team has uncovered Speicher's initials in a prison cell where an Iraqi defector claimed the pilot had been held. They also found another set of initials - M.J.M. - which investigators believe represent his two children, Meghan and Michael, and his former wife, Joanne, who remarried after being told her husband was killed in action, or KIA. She has declined all media requests for interviews.

But plenty more has been found that has yet to be reported. U.S. intelligence agents have discovered coded messages Speicher left behind in nearly every place he was held, according to Amy Waters Yarsinske, a former Naval Reserve intelligence officer who was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize for a piece she co-authored for the Virginian-Pilot on the fate of Speicher. She since has completed a book about the case, "No One Left Behind."

Her book, a copy of which Roberts has on his desk in his Washington office, should be of considerable assistance to prosecutors as a tip sheet should war-crime charges arise in the Speicher case. The book is a chronological timetable rich with firsthand accounts and new revelations that embarrass the Clinton administration for abandoning Speicher. The book also notes that the remains of at least two other American aviators, Barry Cooke and Robert J. Dwyer, have yet to be accounted for, though they still are classified as KIA, according to the Pentagon.

Among the more startling pieces of information revealed in the book comes from a CIA agent who apparently saw Speicher in 1993 and 1995 while in the custody of Bedouin tribesmen in Iraq.

Yarsinske claims Speicher escaped from his aircraft with injuries, made his way through Iraq in search of medical help and eventually was found in the desert and nursed back to health by the Bedouins. The tribe sought to turn the pilot over to the United States in a "deal that would amount to about $1,800 and some sheep and goats," she says. "The Clinton administration says it was too risky because Saddam [Hussein] kept putting his Republican Guard divisions closer to the 'no-fly zone.'"

Yarsinske claims Speicher was "alive and in Bedouin protection" for several years after the shootdown - a fact she says she verified through Joint Chiefs of Staff sources who claim that then-Defense Secretary Les Aspin and the National Security Agency knew of this. "It will take hearings to reveal if [Bill] Clinton knew," she says.

Pentagon sources say the offer to deliver the downed pilot was turned down by Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, who reportedly didn't want to risk lives "looking for old bones." So what was going on here? "The Clinton administration had apparently made the decision that bringing Scott Speicher home at that time would reveal that they had known he was in trouble since [Clinton took] office," Yarsinske says.
Link Posted: 5/15/2003 5:20:32 AM EDT
"Scott was a live witness. ... The embarrassment was a political bombshell, a hit the administration was unwilling to take," said Yarsinske.

At the same time the Clinton people chose to go the diplomatic route, working with an International Red Cross team that in 1995 was allowed to excavate the crash site after numerous delays by Saddam. The delays provided enough time for Saddam and his Republican Guard to find Speicher after brutally interrogating Bedouin tribesmen. The result was devastating: Speicher was captured and the "Bedouins were slaughtered - every man, woman and child in the tribe," Yarsinske says.

Roberts says he has attempted to verify the CIA encounter but has hit a stone wall with the intelligence community because so many have left the agency. "It would be tragic if it took place," he says. "Once we determine the fate of [Speicher] we will explore it. But for now, to corroborate it with paperwork has not been successful."

Yarsinske also suggests the Speicher case may have weighed heavily in former chief of naval operations Adm. Jeremy Boorda's suicide. On May 14, 1996, Boorda had met with those investigating the Speicher case. According to Yarsinske, the investigators knew about evidence gathered at the crash site and significant findings indicating Speicher was alive on the ground. Boorda's "jaw hit the desk. He couldn't believe it," Yarsinske wrote. Two days later, on May 16, 1996, the admiral killed himself.

Yarsinske says Boorda may have taken the news of Speicher being left behind especially hard because he was the one who assured then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney that the aviator was killed in action. That presumption spiraled into one tragic event after another that ultimately sealed Speicher's fate. Instead of looking at evidence that suggested he survived, the Pentagon disregarded it and looked only for evidence that supported the KIA theory. "Listing Speicher as KIA really hurt us," Roberts says. "It really pushed us back."

The big break in the case may have come in 1999 from an Iraqi defector who told authorities he had driven an American pilot from the crash site to a hospital. Intelligence officials asked the defector to pick the pilot out of a photo lineup. He selected Speicher. The defector passed two lie-detector tests. When agents attempted to trick him by claiming there was a huge reward for information leading to another pilot who was shot down, the defector stuck to his story, saying Speicher was the only one he had picked up on the road.

In addition, British intelligence agents claimed Speicher was being held in prison, where he had been visited routinely by the chief of Iraq's intelligence service and Uday Hussein, son of Saddam. British intelligence agents apparently also obtained photographs of Speicher in captivity. The British government immediately denounced the allegations at the time, though perhaps to protect Speicher and covert sources.

Armed with these new accounts and a CIA report issued in 2001 called Intelligence Community Assessment of the Lt. Cmdr. Speicher Case, which stated that "Speicher probably survived the loss of his aircraft, and if he survived he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis," Roberts persuaded Clinton to change Speicher's status from KIA to "missing in action/captured" on Jan. 11, 2002 - 10 days before Clinton left office. More recently, former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz has told U.S. investigators that the pilot died in 1991. "He's lied before," Roberts says. "We think he is lying now. I know he is."

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