Article — From the June 2004 issue

Missing in Iraq

The United States has not found Scott Speicher either

On September 12, 2002, George W. Bush made his case for war before the General Assembly of the United Nations, telling the world’s representatives that their countries faced dire threats from escalating regional conflicts, terrorist cells, and outlaw regimes. Governments with “no law of morality” possessed “the technologies to kill on a massive scale.” But only Iraq, assured the President, harbored “all these dangers, in their most lethal and aggressive forms.” Saddam Hussein had repeatedly defied U.N. Security Council resolutions, including a 1991 ruling demanding “that Iraq return all prisoners from Kuwait and other lands.” According to Bush, more than 600 nationals from at least ten different countries remained unaccounted for in Iraq. “One American pilot is among them.”

The American pilot was Lieutenant Commander Scott Speicher, the first U.S. casualty of Operation Desert Storm. On January 17, 1991, during the war’s first night of combat, Scott Speicher’s F/A-18 Hornet fighter was hit by an Iraqi air-to-air missile over the desert west of Baghdad. Speicher never activated his rescue beacon, and there were no sightings of his ejection or parachute. “Airplane disintegrated on impact, no contact with pilot,” read a Navy report. When the war ended, Scott Speicher was officially declared killed in action. And for ten years he remained K.I.A., until January 2001, when the secretary of the Navy—spurred on by Senator Pat Roberts, a Republican from Kansas and an unremitting advocate for deposing Saddam—changed Speicher’s status to missing in action. It was the first time the Pentagon had made such a reversal. An unclassified U.S. intelligence report made public in March 2002 stated that “Speicher probably survived the loss of his aircraft, and if he survived, he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis.” On October 11, the day after both houses of Congress authorized military force in Iraq, Speicher’s status was changed again. Navy Secretary Gordon England ruled that the pilot—who since his disappearance had been promoted twice, to the rank of captain—be reclassified to the “more appropriate” missing/captured, making Scott Speicher, almost twelve years after he was shot down, a prisoner of war.

Alongside arguments about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, Scott Speicher offered Americans a human and less abstract rationale for war. In the six months leading to war, there were at least 135 news stories about Speicher, speculating about his fate and the character of those who would keep him prisoner. In March 2002 the Washington Times ran a front-page article on Speicher for five consecutive days. One was titled “Bush denounces ‘heartless’ Saddam; He suspects Navy pilot is a live captive,” and another cited an informant inside Iraq who “stated that the pilot was being kept in isolation.” CNN’s Wolf Blitzer called Speicher’s situation “shocking,” and on MSNBC a former Pentagon official discussed the likelihood that the pilot was being tortured. When asked about the hypothetical treatment of the Navy pilot, President Bush said, “It reminds me once again about the nature of Saddam Hussein.” In this manner, Speicher’s case became an argument for the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Only a monster and a war criminal would hold a prisoner incommunicado for eleven years; and, so the syllogism went, surely such a monster and war criminal would acquire and deploy unconventional weapons.

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was a United Nations weapons inspector from 1991 to 1998.

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