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Pilot believed alive, held in Iraq



March 11, 2002 By Bill Gertz THE WASHINGTON TIMES

U.S. intelligence agencies have obtained new information indicating Iraq is holding captive a U.S. Navy pilot shot down during the Persian Gulf war, The Washington Times has learned.

British intelligence provided the CIA and Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) with the new information several months ago, and intelligence officials said it could assist in the ongoing investigation into the fate of Navy Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher.

Cmdr. Speicher was declared killed in action in 1991 after his F-18 Hornet was shot down over Iraq. But last year he was re-classified as "missing in action" by the Pentagon, based on information from an Iraqi defector.

According to U.S. intelligence officials, the British intelligence information was based on an additional intelligence source; someone who had been in Iraq and said he had learned that an American pilot is being held captive in Baghdad.

The British report stated further that only two Iraqis were permitted to see the captive American pilot: the chief of Iraq's intelligence service, and Uday Hussein, son of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, said the officials, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

The new intelligence has led some Pentagon officials to believe Iraq is holding Cmdr. Speicher prisoner. One U.S. official said the new agent offered to identify the exact location in Baghdad where the American is being held and also offered to obtain a photograph of the prisoner.

A defense official said the new information is not related to an earlier report from an Iranian pilot who was repatriated recently to Iran and said that he had seen an American held prisoner in Iraq. "That was checked out, and the intelligence community didn't find anything about it," the defense official said.

President Bush has been briefed on the new intelligence on Cmdr. Speicher and the likelihood of an American POW in Baghdad is being factored into U.S. policy toward future operations against Iraq, the officials said.

DIA spokesman Lt. Cmdr. Jim Brooks said the Speicher case is "an active investigation." The agency "investigates and continues to investigate all reports regarding the Speicher case." He declined to comment further on specific reports on the case.

A White House spokesman could not be reached for comment. It could not be learned if the Bush administration is taking steps to contact the Iraqi government about Cmdr. Speicher. However, U.S. intelligence agencies are continuing to gather information on the case, the official said.

The CIA sent a notice to Congress Feb. 4 saying it had obtained new intelligence related to Cmdr. Speicher and is expected to provide more information in a briefing that could come as early as this week, one official said.

A U.S. intelligence report from March 2001 stated: "We assess that Iraq can account for Cmdr. Speicher but that Baghdad is concealing information about his fate." The report, ordered by the Senate Intelligence Committee, stated that Cmdr. Speicher "probably survived the loss of his aircraft, and if he survived, he almost certainly was captured by the Iraqis."

The report stated that Cmdr. Speicher's aircraft was shot down by an Iraqi jet firing an air-to-air missile, and that the jet crashed in the desert west of Baghdad. An unclassified summary of the report, "Intelligence Community Assessment of the Lieutenant Commander Speicher Case," was obtained by The Times.

The intelligence community report said that after the Gulf war cease-fire, Cmdr. Speicher was not among the 21 U.S. military personnel released, nor were his remains returned. The new intelligence information bolsters an earlier report from an Iraqi national. In 1999, an Iraqi defector reported to U.S. intelligence officials that he had taken an injured U.S. pilot to Baghdad six weeks after the Gulf war began. He identified Cmdr. Speicher in a photograph as the pilot.

Based on the defector report and pressure from Sen. Robert C. Smith, New Hampshire Republican, the Navy changed Cmdr. Speicher's status from killed in action to missing in action on Jan. 11, 2001. The intelligence community report stated that during an investigation of the crash site in 1995, Iraqi officials provided investigators with a flight suit that appeared to be the one worn by Cmdr. Speicher. The flight suit had been cut.

The intelligence report concluded that the pilot "probably survived the crash of his F/A-18." "We assess Lt. Cmdr. Speicher was either captured alive or his remains were recovered and brought to Baghdad," the report said.

Mr. Bush has called Iraq one of three "axis of evil" states, and there have been intelligence reports indicating Iraq may have supported the September 11 attacks.

The government of the Czech Republic monitored a meeting in Prague between an Iraqi intelligence officer and Mohamed Atta, regarded by U.S. investigators as a ringleader for the September 11 attacks. Senior Pentagon policy-makers have said Iraq should be the next target for U.S. anti-terrorism operation.

Cmdr. Speicher was the pilot of a Navy F-18 jet that was shot down by enemy fire on Jan. 17, 1991, the first day of combat operations in the Gulf war.

Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney said during a news conference that same day that the pilot had been killed, and the Navy declared Cmdr. Speicher killed in action five months later.

The intelligence community report said that Iraq's government learned that the pilot was declared dead and as a result felt it probably did not have to account for him at the end of the war.

At first the Pentagon believed Cmdr. Speicher's aircraft was hit by either a ground- or air-fired missile and broke up in flight. But the aircraft was later found intact and its canopy was found some distance from the crash, a sign the pilot had ejected.

The CIA also was told about the capture of an American pilot in the early 1990s but dismissed the information as coming from an unreliable agent, the officials said. The agency later acknowledged its dismissal was an error, U.S. officials said.