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.
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.
When Operation Iraqi Freedom ended and the United States assumed power in Iraq, the Bush Administration ordered a thorough search of the country in an effort to find evidence of weapons of mass destruction, Saddam’s links to Al Qaeda, and the fate of Captain Speicher. The Pentagon formed a special “Speicher team,” which was composed of military personnel based at the Defense Intelligence Agency in Washington and a unit working on the ground in Iraq. In the weeks after the fall of Baghdad, the Speicher team investigated the Hakmiya prison, where the indistinct initials “MSS” were found carved into a cell wall. To those who continued to believe the Bush Administration’s prewar assurances, the initials stood for Michael Scott Speicher, the pilot’s full name. But to the more dubious, the initials meant nothing: a similar carving of “MJN” was found directly above the “MSS” scrawl.
In June the Speicher team interviewed Ahmad Sadiq, a former Iraqi Air Force general. At a debriefing facility in Baghdad’s Green Zone, where the United States now directs many of its operations, Sadiq said he knew the Iraqi pilot who shot down Speicher’s plane in 1991. He also said he had worked closely with Brigadier General Salwan Jameel al-Hadithi, the Iraqi Air Force intelligence officer responsible for the investigations of all downed Coalition pilots. Between 1991 and 2002, Sadiq and Hadithi had prepared, at the request of Saddam Hussein, a thorough report on the current status of every pilot shot down and captured during Desert Storm. When the Speicher team acquired this ninety-page document, they found that it contained only one line on Speicher: “Unknown, no information available on the fate of the pilot.” A report issued internally, meant to be comprehensive, and demanded by Saddam himself—to many, this more than anything proved that Iraq knew nothing of Speicher’s fate.
The 2002 decision to change Speicher’s designation from M.I.A. to P.O.W., U.S. officials said, had been based primarily on new testimony from a “credible” Iraqi defector. The defector, known as 2314, had revealed to his interlocutors that only a handful of Iraqis aside from himself knew of Speicher’s imprisonment, including Saddam Hussein and his son Qusay. Defector 2314 had claimed to be a captain in the Special Security Organization (SSO), a personal assistant to the group’s director, and privy to the most confidential government secrets. In fact, 2314 was really Eduard, an Iraqi Christian who, the Speicher team learned, merely waited tables at the headquarters of the SSO. At most, he had served the director drinks and food. When the SSO director was taken into custody in April 2003 he testified that Eduard was a “born liar” who knew nothing about the fate of Scott Speicher. Hadithi, the former intelligence officer in charge of Speicher’s case, told the Speicher team the same. In several meetings with the U.S. officers, including a final seven-hour marathon session conducted in early March 2004 in which he confronted Eduard directly, Hadithi helped convince the Speicher team that the defector was a fraud. A Pentagon report concluded, “None of the information provided by 2314 has proven accurate.”
It has been more than a year since President Bush declared victory in Iraq, and neither weapons of mass destruction nor, sadly, Scott Speicher has been discovered there. The changes in Speicher’s status raised the hopes of his family, his fellow pilots, and an American public that believed no soldier should ever be left behind. But the evidence on which these hopes were based was threadbare, suspect, and often contradictory. Like the decade-long search for Iraq’s elusive chemical and biological arsenal, the search for Scott Speicher was based on faulty and selectively interpreted intelligence, and on political aims masquerading as fact.
The Speicher team, having found no evidence that the Iraqis had lied about the Navy pilot, is currently wrapping up its investigation and will probably, according to a Defense Intelligence Agency representative, issue its final report in the upcoming weeks. The team has no reason to believe that Speicher had ever been taken into Iraqi custody; if he had managed to eject from his plane he most likely perished soon afterward. These conclusions were corroborated by none other than Saddam Hussein after his capture last December. Asked if he knew the location of Scott Speicher, the former Iraqi dictator said, “No, we have never kept any prisoners. I have never known what happened.”