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Twists, turns delayed finding pilot killed in Iraq

Saddam Hussein was telling the truth, this time. The U.S. just didn't believe him. As a result, it took 18 years to find the remains of the only pilot shot down in the 1991 Gulf War.
Missing Pilot Hidden in the Sand
Navy Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher was shot down over Iraq on the opening night of Operation Desert Storm on Jan. 17, 1991. Anonymous / U.S. Navy via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Saddam Hussein was telling the truth, this time. The United States just didn't believe him.

So it took the most powerful military in the world 18 years to find the remains of the only U.S. Air Force pilot shot down in an aerial battle in the 1991 Gulf War.

Michael Scott Speicher's bones lay 18 inches deep in Iraqi sand, more or less right where a group of Iraqis had led an American search team in 1995.

The search for Speicher was frustrated by two wars, mysteriously switched remains, Iraqi duplicity and a final tip from a young nomad in Anbar province.

U.S. officials often were blinded by the same myopia that tainted prewar intelligence — the American conviction that Saddam's government lied about everything. As it turned out, the Iraqis lied, but sometimes they told the truth.

For more than a decade, speculation swirled that the 33-year-old Speicher, a lieutenant commander when he went missing, had been captured alive. That was disproved by the team that found and confirmed his remains.

"He wasn't captured or tortured," said Thomas Brown, chief of the Intelligence Community POW/MIA (prisoner of war/missing in action) analytic cell at the Defense Intelligence Agency. Brown, who worked on Speicher's case for 15 years, described to The Associated Press in an exclusive interview how the threads leading to the pilot got so tangled.

Speicher was shot down by an Iraqi MiG 100 miles west of Baghdad on Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of the war to drive Saddam's invading forces from Kuwait. Then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney announced the pilot's death as the first casualty of the war, but no search and rescue effort was launched.

U.S. mistake on crash site
When the war ended that March, the U.S. demanded the return of Speicher's remains. But because of a data glitch, the U.S. erroneously pinpointed his crash site south of Baghdad.

The Iraqis were puzzled. They knew an F-18 had been shot down west of the capital. But they followed the botched U.S. coordinates and searched for Speicher's plane in the south, finding nothing.

The search was soon complicated by the Iraqi discovery of a different crash site — of a downed Air Force A-10 fighter. The Iraqis brought the unidentified American A-10 pilot's remains to a Basrah hospital for safekeeping, labeling them "Mickel" for a clumsy translation of what might have been the pilot's belt buckle manufactured by McDonnell Douglas.

Just before those remains were to be handed over to the U.S., Shiites rebelling against Saddam seized the hospital, forcing Iraqi officials to make a hasty gamble.

If they didn't turn over the pilot's remains, they would be in violation of the U.N. resolution ending the war, and the war would not be officially over. So the Iraqis instead handed over to American authorities a 4-pound piece of another cadaver and said it belonged to "Mickel."

U.S. officials already had accounted for the dead A-10 pilot, so the unidentified remains stumped them. Were they Speicher's?

By May 1991, DNA tests ruled that out. Iraq was being duplicitous, but the U.S. couldn't figure out what was behind the switch.

Rumors from Saddam's inner circle about the "Mickel" remains began to morph into whispering that the Iraqis held a live American pilot. The rumors were picked up by U.S. intelligence.

Two years later, in 1993, Speicher's crash site was found by a party of Qatari falcon hunters. Brown believes the Iraqis already had identified the crash site but failed to come forward out of fear they would be accused of covering it up. So instead, the Iraqis led the Qatari hunters to the site, Brown said, so they would "stumble" on the wreckage.

The hunters gave the U.S. Embassy in Qatar a piece of a plane containing a serial number that matched Speicher's F-18.

U.S. military officials began planning an operation to retrieve Speicher's remains. The plan was dropped in 1995 when the Red Cross secured permission from Iraq for a humanitarian search team to excavate the crash site.

Shepherded by Iraqi officials, the search team was led by a local Bedouin boy to Speicher's half-buried flight suit. Nearby were expended flares, part of an ejection seat and pieces of a life raft. But the searchers found no remains. They left suspicious, convinced that they had been set up even though Brown now says Saddam's government was telling the truth about the site.

In January 2001, President Bill Clinton changed Speicher's status from killed in action to missing, echoing U.S. belief he could be alive. An intelligence assessment said Speicher probably had survived the crash and Iraq was either holding him prisoner or hiding his remains.

In the summer of 2002, as the Bush administration prepared to invade Iraq, new intelligence intercepts suggested Speicher was being moved between dozens of secret sites inside Iraq.

Before the 2003 invasion, "we were positive we were getting him back," said Buddy Harris, a Speicher friend who later married the pilot's widow. "We were getting ready to go over and meet with him. We had the whole family prepped, with psychologists ready to help."

At least three different times, based on U.S. government information, Speicher's relatives thought they were getting him back, Harris said.

Brown believes the Iraqi government was trying to convince President George W. Bush that Speicher was still alive to protect Saddam from being targeted when the invasion came.

If that was the motivation, it backfired. Bush used Speicher's case as more evidence that Saddam had to be ousted. After Bush cited Speicher in his September 2002 speech at the United Nations, the rumors of Speicher's movements abruptly stopped, Brown said.

After the U.S. invasion, intelligence analysts searching for Speicher entered the Hakmiya jail in central Baghdad and dug up the grounds. They found remains, but none that matched Speicher's DNA.

Jail cell wall a false lead
They did find a jail cell wall that appeared to be marked with the initials "M.S.S." — and wondered if they had been scratched by the missing pilot.

The Army dismantled the wall section and sent it back to the U.S. for testing. That same summer a soldier discovered similar initials and what appeared to be a date — 9-15-94 — scratched into an I-beam in a parking garage in Tikrit. The FBI cut down the beam and sent it to the Smithsonian Institution for testing.

But the markings turned out to be more false leads. The museum determined the Tikrit initials were made with a special ink reserved for Iraqi religious groups — and an American prisoner would not likely have had access to such sacred ink. While other "M.S.S." markings were found all over Iraq, the analysts were never able to tie them to Speicher.

The searchers continued to press every lead. For six years, soldiers and Marines deployed in Anbar were told to ask people there if they had heard anything about the missing American pilot.

The instructions finally paid off last July. A sheik told Marines of a Bedouin who remembered a burial 20 years earlier. The sheik couldn't recall the exact location, but it was enough for the Marines. They returned to the old site that had frustrated the Red Cross searchers and with 100 men, bulldozers and back hoes, they turned over four football fields worth of desert, 4 feet deep.

The earth yielded another piece of a pilot's flight suit and a jaw bone. The teeth matched the missing pilot's dental records. Michael Scott Speicher, who reached the rank of captain because he kept receiving promotions while his status was unknown, had been there all along, Brown said.

The U.S. now says the case is closed, but Speicher's family, from outside Jacksonville, Florida, is still unconvinced that he died in the crash.

Buddy Harris says the ending is too neat, meant to whitewash the Pentagon's failure to launch a search and rescue mission in 1991.

"Too many people want to tie it into a nice little bow here," Harris says. "Their motive wasn't Scott Speicher, it was to get this thing done."