Playing Politics With a Ghost
Update: Scott Ritter has written a response to commenters below.
Finding the remains of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Scott Speicher in Iraq provides long overdue closure for his family and comrades, but it also exposes the tireless exploitation of Speicher’s disappearance in 1991 by Sen. Pat Roberts, a staunch Republican from Kansas, who used it to demonize the regime of Saddam Hussein and to justify the case for the invasion of Iraq.
Roberts likes to remind people that he was once a Marine. And, as the saying goes, “once a Marine, always a Marine.” The senator, who wears his time served as a badge of honor, was commissioned in the Marine Corps in 1958 following his graduation from Kansas State University and left the service in 1962 with the rank of captain. As someone who went through the caldron that is Marine Officer Candidate School and had my skills further honed through the six-month Officer Basic School, I know that obtaining the title “Officer of Marines” is no small accomplishment, and I commend Pat Roberts for possessing the physical, moral and intellectual traits necessary to have earned that distinction.
The Marine Corps wasn’t in Robert’s blood enough to motivate him to make it a career, however, and after fulfilling his four-year requirement, he left the service for employment in journalism and later as a politician. You wouldn’t know this if you were to pay a visit to his office in Washington, D.C., where he has built a veritable memorial to military service, with memorabilia and photographs proudly on display. One would have thought that the Marine Corps was Roberts’ life.
He certainly gives that impression, with his frequent use of the Marine Corps motto, “Semper Fidelis” — Always Faithful. He often uses it in speeches and loves to quote it when talking to other former Marines, as he did when addressing me when I testified before a joint session of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Affairs committees in September 1998.
“Semper Fi, Major. Semper Fi, and persevere”, Roberts told me, following a barbed diatribe against me and my testimony by none other than then-Sen. (and current Vice President) Joe Biden.
I am sure Pat Roberts looks back on the four years he spent in the Marines with justifiable pride. I do not, and will not, mock his service. But as a fellow former Marine (I spent nearly 12 years as an officer in the active military and reserves, leaving with the rank of major), I do take umbrage with a man who wraps himself in the flag and tradition of the Marines for political purpose, especially when these symbols and mottos are used not to further the cause of legitimate national defense but rather to manipulate facts, distort truth and fabricate lies in support of partisan political gain, actions that place Marines and others who wear the uniform of the American military in harm’s way and disgrace the sacrifice of those who paid the ultimate price.
I have placed Roberts’ self-serving abuse of his Marine credentials in my cross hairs before, lambasting his role as the chairman of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee in covering up the Bush administration’s fraudulent use of intelligence to justify its WMD-based casus belli for invading Iraq (see my 2005 article “Semper Fraud, Senator Roberts”) and, prior to that, his role is exploiting the tragedy of Cmdr. Speicher to further the Bush administration’s case for war with Iraq (see “Missing in Iraq: The United States has not found Scott Speicher either,” my 2004 Harper’s magazine article).
My goal here is not to repeat what I have written before, but rather to point out that, especially in the case of Speicher, Roberts can no longer hide behind a defense of vague generalities and continued uncertainty: Scott Speicher’s remains were finally found in Iraq after Marines were led by local Bedouin to the place where his remains were buried, confirming the fact that he had died when shot down in the opening phase of Operation Desert Storm back in January 1991.
To anyone familiar with the tragic events of Scott Speicher, this fact squares with the genesis of this sad tale. Speicher was flying a combat mission over Iraq when his F/A-18 was shot down by an Iraqi fighter. U.S. Air Force airborne monitoring aircraft confirmed that Speicher’s plane was being tracked by the target acquisition radar of the Iraqi fighter, and that a missile had been launched against Speicher.
One of Speicher’s fellow pilots saw a large flash in the sky where Speicher’s plane was operating. U.S. radar lost contact with his aircraft, there was no “Mayday” call, no parachute sighting, no rescue beacon activation.
I was serving in the Joint Combat Intelligence Center of U.S. Central Command, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, at the time. Thanks to the miracle of modern electronics, we were able to monitor the activities over Iraq in real time. I can state unequivocally that at the time Speicher’s airplane disappeared from our monitoring screens, no one thought he had survived. His status was listed as “missing in action,” but this was only because we did not have a body. Less than two months after Desert Storm ended, in May 1991, Speicher’s status was changed to “killed in action — body not recovered,” reflecting the reality that, based upon all available data, he tragically had died in the line of duty.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. One man closely involved in helping shape the content and conclusions of this report was none other than Pat Roberts, the esteemed junior senator from Kansas, who sat on the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, and as such was privy to all of the new “intelligence” about Speicher. Roberts was “outraged” by what he was being told. In February 2002, Roberts, now installed as chair of the Senate Select Intelligence Committee, wrote a letter to President Bush demanding that Speicher’s status be changed again, this time from “MIA” to “MIA-Captured.”
Such drastic actions could not escape the notice of the American press, and in March 2002 The Washington Times, a well-known outlet for voices sympathetic to the neoconservatives, ran a series of articles that emphasized the possibility of Speicher being held prisoner by the Iraqis and that made liberal use of interviews provided by Sen. Roberts.
Iraq, in response to these leaks, stated that it was prepared to receive a U.S. delegation headed by Roberts, with one stipulation — that I be included as part of the delegation. Saddam Hussein had directed an Iraqi official who had been closely involved with the U.N. inspection effort to prepare a report on Scott Speicher. This official was well known to me, and in fact we had worked closely together during my time as a chief weapons inspector to resolve numerous sensitive issues. The Iraqis were prepared to accommodate the delegation to do whatever was necessary to resolve the Speicher case, including traveling to western Iraq and interviewing anyone we so desired. I was invited to Washington to meet with Sen. Roberts on this matter.
The senator, who had previously told the press that he thought it very possible that Speicher was alive and wondering why his nation had forsaken him, decided against taking the Iraqis up on their offer, fearing any such visit would be exploited for propaganda value by the Iraqis. (After the war I was able to meet with the Iraqi official, who told me that he had been prepared to take me and the delegation to every Bedouin village and encampment in the area to find out the fate of Scott Speicher. This presumably would have included those Bedouin who in July 2009 led U.S. Marines to Speicher’s burial site in western Iraq.)
Having refused to do “whatever it takes” to discover the fate of Speicher, Roberts proceeded to use the Chalabi-sourced “defector” reports as the justification for pressuring the White House into not only stating that Speicher was a prisoner—President Bush did this in his address to the U.N. in September 2000—but also formally changing Speicher’s status to reflect this belief: In October 2002 Speicher was officially redesignated as a prisoner of war.
Following the invasion of Iraq in March 2003, the issue of Scott Speicher quickly disappeared. Investigations carried out by the U.S. intelligence community determined that the “defector” reports that Roberts and the others had relied so heavily on in forming their judgments about Speicher’s fate were fabrications provided by individuals of dubious character. The files of Saddam Hussein’s intelligence and security services were scoured, yielding no information on Speicher being held captive (the United States did find the document prepared by my Iraqi contact in 2002, but immediately dismissed it as a fabrication since all it noted was that Iraq possessed no information about Speicher). By 2004 the U.S. intelligence community had determined that Speicher was not only not being held captive by Iraq, but that he had most probably died back in 1991. Regardless, the Bush administration continued to keep Speicher on the rolls as a prisoner of war, a status that will now change with the discovery of his remains.
There are those, including Scott Speicher’s family, who believe that his tragic story has resulted in improvements in the way in which the United States military will respond to downed airmen in the future. There are those among Speicher’s friends who parrot the charges levied by Roberts and others that “no rescue team was sent out to look for Speicher.” I would note that the majority of those who are leveling this charge never served in the military, let alone combat.
I had the honor of meeting and serving with Col. Jesse Johnson, the commander of Central Command’s Special Operations Forces during Desert Storm. I felt personal frustration in having a mission I had personally conceived and described to Johnson be aborted because in his professional opinion the risk-gain benefit didn’t add up.
Johnson, a decorated former Delta Force operator who participated in the failed rescue attempt of U.S. hostages in Iran back in 1980, has more combat experience in his right pinkie than those who criticize his call for not sending a team out to investigate the downing of Speicher. What would that team have accomplished? British SAS operatives were in the general area, and were being chased, killed and captured by Iraqi forces. Johnson had no information to go on in terms of where Speicher’s plane went down, whether Speicher had successfully ejected, or whether he was even alive. Initial reporting (to which I was privy) listed Speicher as a probable KIA. Then-Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney announced this as fact, declaring Speicher as the first American casualty of the war. We were at war, and Speicher was one of our warriors. This war had larger objectives that precluded diverting significant resources to search for a phantom. Had there been a parachute sighting, a radio contact or any other piece of data to suggest that Speicher had survived the shoot-down, then I can guarantee that Jesse Johnson would have dedicated whatever resources necessary to achieve his rescue.
In the end, Johnson’s instincts as a commander were proved right—Speicher was killed, and the risks associated with a search-and-rescue mission had been too great. For those who continued to call for a rescue mission, the following question needs to be answered: How many more would you have had die to recover a dead man? Let the professionals do their jobs. I respected Johnson’s decision back in 1991, and I respect it today, just as I respect Gen. Shalikashvili’s call in 1994 not to send U.S. Special Operations Forces into Iraq on a covert mission to search a three-year-old crash site.
Scott Speicher was killed in action over Iraq in January 1991. Since his body was not found, one could make a viable case for changing his status to “missing in action.” But he should never have been classified as being a prisoner of war. To do so was nothing more than a politically motivated ruse by a U.S. senator, Pat Roberts, who allowed his partisanship in favor of waging war on Iraq to cloud his judgment and betray his responsibilities as one whom the American people, including Speicher’s family, trusted to serve us in a position of extraordinary responsibility.
Roberts has a lot to answer for with regard to his conduct in the Speicher affair. So do all the other politicians who used Speicher as a vehicle to sell their war agenda. Roberts in particular has not behaved responsibly. As a former Marine, I believe he has disgraced his standing as a U.S. senator and besmirched his reputation as one who claims he is still bound by the code of Semper Fidelis — Always Faithful. On the matter of Speicher, Pat Roberts was faithful to no one but his own petty partisan politics and personal ambition. And while his constituents in Kansas may not, history will judge him accordingly.
But this is not how I want to conclude this essay. There is a far more important issue at hand—honoring one of America’s fallen warriors. After 18 years of uncertainty, Speicher—Navy aviator, husband and father—is finally coming home. I say this as an American citizen, a former Marine officer, and a fellow veteran of Operation Desert Storm: Rest in peace, Scott Speicher. Your service to your nation, and your sacrifice, will never be forgotten.
Scott Ritter is a former Marine intelligence officer, chief U.N. weapons inspector and the author of numerous books.