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Playing Politics With a Ghost
Posted on Aug 6, 2009
By Scott Ritter
The U.S. Navy’s decision to list Scott Speicher as KIA did not sit well with many of his fellow pilots. Citing the failure of Iraq to provide a body at the conclusion of Operation Desert Storm—Iraq did provide some remains, which, after DNA testing, were shown not to be those of Speicher—as well as the lack of any search-and-rescue mission being launched after Speicher was shot down, his colleagues were frustrated and bitter, adamant that everything that could have been done to discover Speicher’s fate had not been done, thus violating the unwritten code stipulating that one will never be left behind on the field of battle by his fellow warriors.
The fact that the remains that had been turned over by Iraq were not Speicher’s led many to speculate that Iraq was lying to the United States and holding Speicher prisoner in the same way it held the first Iranian pilot shot down in 1980 prisoner while denying they were holding him. Efforts, both formal and informal, were made to find Speicher’s remains, with Special Operations operatives using U.N. weapons inspection teams as a cover to scour western Iraq for any evidence of the Navy pilot’s fate.
One inspection that I was personally involved with, conducted in October 1993, succeeded in finding the wreckage of an F-15E shot down in 1991 and whose two pilots were subsequently captured by Iraq, but despite successive sweeps by helicopters flown by elite Army crews familiar with the Speicher file, nothing related to Speicher was discovered.
In December 1993, a Qatari hunting party discovered an almost intact F/A-18 wreck in the desert some 100 miles north of Saudi Arabia, together with a canopy that had been separated as if an attempt to eject had been made. Serial numbers from a plate brought back by the Qataris confirmed that the aircraft was Speicher’s. The existence of an intact aircraft meant that Speicher’s plane had not blown up in the air as initially thought, and the separated canopy meant that he might have ejected. But there was no body, or any evidence of Speicher’s demise or potential survival.
The Special Operations command considered approaching the United Nations to field another inspection as a cover to gain access to Speicher’s aircraft but decided the best option was to carry out its own covert operation. When then-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff John Shalikashvili turned down that operation, the Pentagon turned to the International Red Cross, which approached the Iraqi government and in 1995 got permission for a team, working under the auspices of the Red Cross, to gain access to the crash site and search for evidence which might conclusively determine Speicher’s fate. While the remnants of a flight suit were found, nothing else was discovered that could bring closure to the case. In 1996, the U.S. Navy concluded that Speicher could not have survived the crash of his airplane. Scott Speicher remained listed as KIA, no body found.
There the case would have stayed had it not been for the efforts of neoconservatives who were pressuring then-President Bill Clinton to formulate and implement policy toward Iraq that would lead to the removal of Saddam Hussein from power. The darling of the neoconservatives during this period was Ahmed Chalabi, an opposition leader with strong ties to the CIA.
Chalabi had been shopping so-called defector reports to sympathetic sources in and out of the U.S. government designed to reinforce any claim of wrongdoing that had been levied at Saddam Hussein’s regime (it is now known that most of these reports were derived not from actual defectors, but rather Chalabi’s operatives who were carefully briefed on a story and then selectively made available to targeted intelligence services or politically influential sources in the U.S. government and media).
While most of these reports centered on the issue of weapons of mass destruction, Chalabi also provided information about the existence of an American “prisoner of war” still being held inside Iraq. These reports were eagerly embraced by some who believed the “prisoner” to be Scott Speicher.
Under considerable pressure from the Republican Party for failing to do enough to confront Iraq, Clinton was ill-positioned to ignore this new “evidence” about Speicher, and in one of his final acts as president, on Jan. 10, 2001, he pressured the Department of Defense to reclassify Speicher as “missing in action,” a step that brought Speicher back to life as far as the Navy was concerned. Speicher’s widow, having been told her husband was dead, had remarried. Now she was confronted by a government bureaucracy that not only said her husband might still be alive, but also was promoting him as if he were in fact alive.
As if this weren’t enough, the proponents of war with Iraq began a crusade to turn the tragedy of Speicher’s sacrifice into a cause for war in its own right. Working closely with both British and Dutch intelligence officials (who had access to their own stable of dubious Iraqi “defectors” controlled by Chalabi and other Iraqi opposition leaders), the Department of Defense, now operating under the direction of the administration of President George W. Bush, assembled a new intelligence estimate based on not one, but several uncorroborated defector reports, which concluded that Scott Speicher had very likely survived the downing of his aircraft in January 1991, and that if he had survived, he would have most likely been taken prisoner by the Iraqis.
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