Missing pilot's status changed
Two senators suggested there is new, classified evidence indicating Speicher is alive inside Iraq.
Speicher, who lived in Jacksonville, originally was declared dead after his F/A-18 was shot down the opening night of the Persian Gulf War in 1991. But the military changed his status to missing in action a decade later, given the absence of evidence he was killed in the crash. The Navy also recently promoted the missing pilot to the rank of captain.
Iraq says Speicher was killed but has not turned over any remains.
Navy Secretary Gordon England on Friday changed Speicher's official status to missing/captured.
"I have no evidence to conclude that Capt. Speicher is dead," England wrote.
"While the information available to me now does not prove definitively that Capt. Speicher is alive and in Iraqi custody, I am personally convinced the Iraqis seized him sometime after his plane went down. Further, it is my firm belief that the government of Iraq knows what happened to Capt. Speicher."
Speicher, who graduated from Florida State University, was married and had two children at the time his plane went down. His wife has since remarried. A spokeswoman for Joanne Harris, Speicher's ex-wife, said the officer's family was pleased with the change.
"We think it is about time. We asked for this change more than a year ago," said Cindy Laquidara, a Jacksonville lawyer who speaks for Harris.
"When you leave somebody behind, the passage of time does not make a difference," she said. "It should not be up to the serviceman to prove he is alive."
Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said in a statement Friday that he believes Speicher is indeed alive. Roberts came to that conclusion last month after getting a series of classified briefings on the case, spokeswoman Sarah Ross said.
"A lot of that is based on intelligence information and a general hunch," Ross said.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said an Iraqi defector told officials that 11 years ago he drove a wounded American pilot to a hospital.
"He was a credible witness," said Nelson, who said the man had given information on other topics that was correct. He had also passed a polygraph exam, Nelson said.
Roberts, Nelson and other members of Congress had pressed the Pentagon to declare Speicher a prisoner of war. England wrote that the captured designation means that "if alive, he's a prisoner of war."
"This change in status adds credibility and urgency to efforts to secure Capt. Scott Speicher's release," Roberts said. "It sends a symbolic message to the Iraqis, to other adversaries and most important to the men and women of the armed forces that we will accept nothing less than full disclosure of circumstances surrounding the missing and captured."
Some in the Navy had worried that declaring Speicher captured would be seen as a political move as part of President Bush's drive to win support for possible military action against Saddam Hussein. England deliberately waited to approve the change until after Congress had given Bush the authority he sought to take military action in Iraq, according to a defense official who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Though not mentioning Speicher by name, Bush has referred in several recent speeches to a U.S. pilot still missing in Iraq.
There is no known physical evidence that Speicher was captured, but U.S. intelligence agencies believe it is a possibility.
Last year, U.S. intelligence agencies said in a report to the Senate Intelligence Committee that Speicher probably ejected from his plane and survived the shootdown. "We assess Lt. Cmdr. Speicher was either captured alive or his remains were recovered and brought to Baghdad," the report said. In either case, the Iraqi government has concealed information about his fate, it said.
In July, the State Department sent a diplomatic note through the International Committee of the Red Cross asking whether the Iraqi government can offer new details about Speicher.
In a July 8 letter to Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said he agreed with Powell's suggestion that a note be delivered "to confirm Iraq's intention to provide new information."
In March, Iraq offered to meet with U.S. officials in Baghdad to discuss the case.
A U.S. excavation team visited the crash site in 1995, finding aircraft debris but no human remains. U.S. officials have said the site was tampered with because reconnaissance photos showed part of the plane removed, then returned, before the excavation team arrived.
The team "determined that the cockpit area had been expertly excavated" before the team's arrival, and "all significant cockpit debris was removed," England wrote.
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