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    March 12, 2002
   

    Senator suspects pilot alive in Iraq
    By Bill Gertz
    THE WASHINGTON TIMES

    A member of the Senate Intelligence Committee said yesterday he suspects a Navy pilot shot down over Iraq in 1991 is alive and being held captive as the State Department said Baghdad has ignored U.S. requests for information about the pilot's fate.

    Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, said in an interview that he has asked Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld to classify Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher as a prisoner of war, instead of missing in action. The Pentagon changed Cmdr. Speicher's status last year from killed to missing in action.

    "The bottom line is there is no evidence he was killed when his aircraft was shot down in 1991," Mr. Roberts said. "On the contrary, there are numerous reports that indicate he could be alive." State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the Iraqi government has not replied to U.S. diplomatic appeals asking for information about the fate of Cmdr. Speicher.

    A formal diplomatic note was sent to Baghdad in January 2001 asking for information about the pilot. The issue also was raised in diplomatic meetings with Iraqi officials in Geneva, Mr. Boucher said.

    On Friday at a meeting of diplomats in Geneva known as the Tripartite Commission, U.S. Ambassador to Kuwait Richard Jones told Iraqi officials: "Iraq continues to shirk its responsibility to answer the many unresolved questions about Cmdr. Speichers fate."

    Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican and member of the Armed Services Committee, said he has been tracking reports on the Speicher case for more than five years.

    "Unfortunately, we have not yet accounted for Commander Speicher, but I will continue to work with the administration to determine his fate," Mr. Smith said through a spokesman. "We must vigorously pursue every lead for the sake of Commander Speicher and his family. We owe him nothing less."

    Pentagon officials are expected to brief Congress on the case as early as today. The administration and congressional officials were responding to a report in yesterday's editions of The Washington Times that said new intelligence information was uncovered in the last several months indicating Cmdr. Speicher is being held prisoner in Iraq.

    Cmdr. Speicher was declared killed in action in 1991, but his status was changed last year to missing in action. It was an unprecedented action and put the Pentagon in the position of possibly having let behind an American at the end of the Gulf war.

    A spokesman for the Iraqi mission to the United Nations could not be reached for comment.

    Mr. Roberts, in a Feb. 14 letter to Mr. Rumsfeld, stated that a recent U.S. intelligence community assessment of the case concluded that Cdmr. Speicher "probably survived the loss of his aircraft and if he survived, he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis."

    "This strongly suggests the more appropriate designator or status of POW," Mr. Roberts stated in the letter. "I believe the status of POW sends a symbolic message not only to the Iraqis, but to other adversaries, current and future and most importantly to the men and women of the U.S. armed forces and the American people."

    Mr. Roberts said in the interview he discussed the Speicher case with President Bush three weeks ago, and that the president assured him the case is "very high on his agenda."

    The possibility of an American POW in Baghdad also is complicating U.S. efforts to expand the war on terrorism to Iraq, U.S. officials said. Mr. Roberts said the Pentagon has put together a special team of officials to investigate the case.

    The senator also noted that various intelligence reports about an American pilot held in Iraq "tend to add up." Asked if he believes Cmdr. Speicher is alive, Mr. Roberts said: "I can't say conclusively that he's there, but that's not the point. They cant say conclusively he's not alive, and the presumption is they must aggressively pursue every avenue of this case."

    Intelligence officials said reports that Cmdr. Speicher is alive in Iraq have been surfacing since 1991, when two Iraqi nationals told the CIA that Iraq was holding an American pilot. The CIA dismissed the information as coming from unreliable sources.

    In 1995, Cmdr. Speichers F - 18 aircraft was found and an investigation team went to the site and determined that the pilot ejected before it crashed. Iraq also provided Cmdr. Speichers flight suit at that time.

    Then in 1999, an Iraqi defector reported driving an American pilot to Baghdad six weeks after the war started. That report eventually led to the reclassification of Cmdr. Speicher as missing in action.

    Several months ago, the Defense Intelligence Agency and CIA obtained new information from a foreign intelligence service stating that a person who had been in Iraq had learned that an American pilot was held by the Iraqis. The source said the pilot's only visitors were Saddam's son Uday and the chief of Iraqi intelligence.

    Some intelligence officials yesterday sought to play down the new intelligence information by claiming that Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein would not have kept secret the fact that an American pilot was captured and would have used the pilot for propaganda purposes.

    Other intelligence officials said Saddam is just as likely to have kept secret its possession of a U.S. prisoner of war. These officials note that Saddam's government held one Iranian pilot as a prisoner of war for 17 years, all the while denying it held any Iranian prisoners of war.
  

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