Article — From the June 2004 issue
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Article — From the June 2004 issue
I first heard of Scott Speicher the day after his plane was lost, while sitting at my basement desk in the Saudi Arabian Ministry of Defense, which then housed the Operation Desert Storm command center. During the Gulf War, I was a battle-damage assessment officer on General Norman Schwarzkopf’s intelligence staff; it was my job to analyze reports of Iraqi casualties and equipment losses. Among the documents detailing the first night of battle, I saw a reference to the downing of Speicher’s plane. Initial accounts were sparse, but over the next weeks we learned enough to determine that Lieutenant Commander Speicher had not survived the crash. Fellow pilots reported having seen the plane blow apart and explode in a ball of fire. There was no evidence to suggest that Speicher had ejected from his plane or outlived the direct hit.
The first intimation that Speicher might have survived came in early 1993, when the CIA learned that pieces of a U.S. Navy F/A-18 were being sold on the black market in the Middle East. In December a small party of CIA-sponsored Qatari operatives, in Iraq to hunt exotic game, managed to locate wreckage from Speicher’s aircraft roughly 100 miles inside Iraq, northeast of the Saudi border town of Ar’ar. It seemed the jet had not “disintegrated,” as was previously believed, raising the possibility, however slight, that the pilot was alive.
The Speicher crash site eventually was investigated in December 1995. A group of inspectors from the Defense Department and the International Committee of the Red Cross discovered sections of the plane intact and were unable to find evidence of human remains or the plane’s cockpit—all of which left open the possibility that Speicher had ejected from the plane and lived. The most curious find was a solitary flight suit, in relatively good condition, lying in the sand some distance from the wreckage. But this inspection team also determined that Speicher, prior to an ejection, would have been exposed to flames of up to 700 degrees Fahrenheit for at least three seconds; an oxygen mask fails at 400 degrees. The Pentagon’s Kenneth Bacon said after the investigation, “Nothing the team found indicates that the pilot survived the crash.”
In December 1997, I was a weapons inspector for the United Nations Special Commission (UNSCOM), in which capacity I would oversee fifty-four searches in Iraq over seven years. That month a member of my inspection team, a retired Delta Force intelligence operative who continued to do covert work for the Pentagon, requested that I add a site to my inspection list. He wanted to search the Hakmiya prison, known as the “Baghdad Hilton” to the U.S. pilots held captive there during Desert Storm and a possible home at some time to Scott Speicher. (I learned from the retired operative that in the summer of 1995 there had also been a similar plan, known then as the “Ritter option,” to embed Delta Force personnel in my UNSCOM team; I, wittingly or not, would have led them to the Speicher crash site.) Although I was reluctant at first, eventually I cooperated with the former Delta Force operative, and the inspection of the Hakmiya prison went smoothly. I found no evidence of WMD activity; he uncovered no new information on Scott Speicher.
My only other direct involvement with the Speicher case occurred in March 2002, when the Iraqi government announced that it would allow a U.S. delegation to travel within Iraq to conduct a full investigation into Speicher’s status. To my surprise, the Iraqis requested that I be involved. Within two days a senior staffer for Pat Roberts called to say the senator would like to talk to me. I had resigned from UNSCOM in 1998, frustrated with the United States for failing to support the work of the weapons inspectors, but I flew to Washington to meet with Senator Roberts, who had expressed interest in going to Baghdad himself to take part in the search. Later I traveled to New York to meet with Naji Sabri, the Iraqi foreign minister. Eventually Roberts’ trip was deemed politically unacceptable both to the White House and to Roberts himself, and the plan was scrapped.