No evidence found on pilot's fate, Navy official says

WASHINGTON—Despite nearly a year of searching, the Navy has no new intelligence to resolve the fate of a Navy pilot who was shot down on the first night of the 1991 Persian Gulf War and is still missing, the Navy's top admiral said Tuesday.

Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher's FA-18 Hornet was shot down in western Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991. Speicher, 33, originally was listed as killed in action, but the Defense Department changed his status to "missing-captured" in January 2001, after Iraqi defectors claimed that Speicher had survived the crash.

The Bush administration used alleged sightings of the Navy pilot, some of which were provided by Ahmad Chalabi's exile group Iraqi National Congress, to help bolster the case for invading Iraq and deposing Saddam Hussein.

"We do not have new intelligence that adds clarity and definition to what happened to him," Adm. Vern Clark, chief of naval operations, said during a breakfast meeting with reporters.

But Clark said finding out what happened to the pilot remained a top priority and that the investigation into his fate continued.

Saddam's government said Speicher was killed at the time of the crash and turned over some remains in 1991, but DNA testing later proved they weren't his.

One of the defectors said the Navy pilot was at a Baghdad hospital in 1998.

A senior Navy official, who asked not to be identified, acknowledged that some alleged eyewitness accounts later had been discredited. But he said there were "a lot of different" witnesses.

But a senior administration official, who also asked not to be named, said all the defectors who provided information about Speicher came from Chalabi's INC.

According to the official, one defector told Pentagon officials, "I know where he is. I know he is alive. I know which prison he is being held in. Give me a special forces team, and I will go in with them and get him."

Doubts about the veracity of the defector's claims were the subject of heated discussions between the Pentagon and the State Department, the official said. Eventually, the defector was put to a lie-detector test and failed, the official said.

Military search teams have scoured dozens of sites in Iraq, including prisons, hospitals and graveyards, looking for traces of Speicher or his remains. In April, U.S. soldiers found the initials "MSS" scratched in a Baghdad jail cell, raising hopes that he might be found.

But last week, Adm. Lowell Jacoby, the director of the Defense Intelligence Agency, testified to the Senate Intelligence Committee that a report on the forensic results isn't complete. A senior defense official, also speaking on condition of anonymity, said the initials still were being evaluated.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who's followed the case for years, acknowledged Tuesday that Speicher's status was based largely on the testimony of "one or two defectors." But he said those defectors weren't supplied by the INC.

"The veracity of the witnesses I'm talking about has been established," Nelson said.

Nelson has pushed for the Pentagon to offer a $1 million reward for information on Speicher, but the Pentagon doesn't plan to do that, he said.

Nelson thinks there's a slim chance Speicher may still be alive.

"You can't say we've come to a dead end," he said. "There are still avenues to be explored. But with each passing day, the chances of finding him alive are diminished."

Another senior defense official, who asked not to be named, also said Speicher's status was changed based on accounts by INC-supplied defectors. But the official said there were additional sources corroborating that Speicher survived the crash and had been spotted alive, though the official declined to elaborate.

The leads on what happened to Speicher were diminishing, the official acknowledged. But even so, the searchers hoped to resolve questions about the pilot's fate eventually.

"We hope in the next couple of weeks to nail this down," the official said. "We are trying to find one particular person who might hold the key. It might lead to a dead end, or it might lead to this guy saying, `I helped bury the body.'''