Four years ago, a hunter looking for wild game in western Iraq stumbled across the ruins of an American fighter jet.
It was the missing Navy F-18 piloted by Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, the first American lost in the 1991 Persian Gulf war, and the only one whose fate remains unknown. The Pentagon, alerted by the hunter, sent a spy satellite over the crash site. It "detected a man-made symbol in the area of the ejection seat," Pentagon documents say.
Some senior officers thought Speicher might have survived the crash. They said they had a moral obligation to bring him back, dead or alive, no matter how long it took. So special-operations soldiers planned a secret mission to scour the site for clues. Their chances of success were high, they said, and the risks of an Iraqi response very low. But the Pentagon's leaders balked, fearing that the risks outweighed the rewards.
Gen. John M. Shalikashvili, then chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, scrubbed the plan, saying, "I do not want to have to write the parents and tell them that their son or daughter died looking for old bones," according to Timothy G. Connolly, then principal assistant deputy secretary of defense for special operations, and other senior officers who witnessed the general's statement in December 1994.
Shalikashvili, now retired, confirmed his decision and its rationale in a written statement on Friday. "There was no overwhelming need to put our soldiers at risk to covertly search a 3-year-old crash site," he wrote.
Advocates of the secret mission said the obligation to look for a fallen comrade should have outweighed the risk of casualties. "The warriors believed they had a responsibility," said Stan Arthur, who retired as a four-star admiral after leading allied naval forces in the gulf war. "You lose one of your own, you go back and find him. The more modern concept was that you can't take the risk of a loss."
Those who opposed the secret mission to Iraq recalled the searing televised images of the Army Rangers who were killed in Somalia in 1993 trying to recover fallen comrades _ and the public pillorying that their commanders took from Congress and the news media. They thought the mission too dangerous, even though the Pentagon's Joint Special Operations Command assessed the risks as "low" or "very low." Their idea was safer and, they believed, smarter: working with the Red Cross to enter Iraq with a team of forensic experts.
In the end, the Pentagon took the least risky route. Two years after the discovery of the wreckage, and a year after Shalikashvili's decision, a Pentagon team entered Iraq openly, with Saddam Hussein's permission, under the banner of the Red Cross.
The searchers still do not know if Speicher bailed out successfully. They still do not know if he could have survived the crash.
They found to their dismay that, just as the advocates of a secret military mission had feared, the crash site had been excavated, most likely by Iraqi officers. This account is based on Pentagon documents and interviews with present and former military officials.
The pilot's vanishing point
On Jan. 17, 1991, in the first hours of the gulf war, Michael Scott Speicher, 33, went down in a dogfight over western Iraq. The Navy spent months trying to understand why. It might have been an Iraqi air-to-air missile, but no one knows for sure.
His father, Wallace, had hopes that he might have survived. "Scotty's coming home," he said three days later. But Speicher, who had grown up in Jacksonville and graduated from Florida State University, was listed as "killed in action _ body not recovered." Speicher's wife, who has since remarried, wants to preserve her privacy.
When the war was over, "the Iraqis returned 1.5 pounds of human flesh they claimed belonged to a pilot named "Michael."' Pentagon documents say. "Subsequent DNA tests determined the remains were not Speicher."
Pentagon officials still wonder whether this was a deliberate Iraqi attempt to deceive the United States about Speicher's fate.
The hunting party that found his plane was led by a senior military officer from Qatar, an emirate bordering Saudi Arabia. The Qatari officer brought home pictures of the plane's canopy, a shard of metal with serial numbers, and memories of seeing an ejection seat. He gave them all to officials at the U.S. Embassy in Qatar. The numbers on the shard were proof.
Moral codes and military traditions compelled the Pentagon to look for Speicher's remains _ or a shred of evidence that he might have lived.
On April 15, 1994, officials from the office of the secretary of defense, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the Navy, the State Department and the CIA discussed "a covert/clandestine military action to investigate the crash site," the Pentagon documents say.
That was a far better idea than openly asking Baghdad for permission for a search, the group agreed. They said that an open approach could reveal the location to the Iraqis, which "would likely jeopardize the site's integrity." The Iraqis had scavenged every other Desert Storm crash site.
A separate military intelligence analysis warned the Joint Chiefs that "the location of the site would be divulged and subsequent investigations thwarted by Iraqi intelligence exploitation" if the United States openly approached Baghdad.
On May 11, 1994, J. Alan Liotta, chief of the Pentagon's prisoner of war/missing in action office, wrote to the Joint Chiefs, "Access to the wreckage remains our only way to determine conclusively what happened to Lt. Cmdr. Speicher."
He continued: "For us to account successfully for Lt. Cmdr. Speicher, the mission ideally would need to retrieve and return the ejection seat and canopy." The mission also needed the black boxes in which data on the cockpit and engine were stored. Those boxes, he said, "should have survived the crash and would provide vital clues to what the plane and the pilot were experiencing during the flight's last minutes."
The issue was clear, said Adm. Arthur, then the vice chief of naval operations: "Did we or did we not have a lost pilot?"
He said he believed there was a chance that Speicher had ejected successfully and survived. "We know there was an ejection attempt," he said. "I thought he bailed out. I was adamant that we get back in there."
No scenarios without risk
But for six months, the nation's military leaders maintained what the documents call "a holding pattern."
On Dec. 23, 1994, Defense Secretary William Perry, Shalikashvili, Connolly and at least four other Pentagon officials, including Frederick C. Smith, the assistant secretary for international security affairs, discussed their options.
Connolly and others favored the military mission. Four helicopters carrying a special-operations team would cross the Iraqi border from Saudi Arabia at night. The team would return with everything it could find _ black boxes, bones, wiring from the cockpit, fragments of metal and any other clues.
Smith and others favored the diplomatic course: openly approaching Baghdad through the International Committee of the Red Cross. The Red Cross would ask Baghdad for permission to go to the crash site with a Pentagon forensic team. The team could work at length, without danger.
Connolly said he warned that the diplomatic option would alert the Iraqis and ultimately fail. He quoted the fifth stanza of the Rangers' creed: "I will never let a fallen comrade fall into the hands of the enemy."
The choice ultimately lay with Perry, and a final decision did not come until March 1995. But the military option effectively died that day when Shalikashvili opposed it with his statement about old bones.
"I concluded that there was no overwhelming need to put our soldiers at risk to covertly search a 3-year-old crash site when the Red Cross option was available," Shalikashvili said in his statement. "I stand by that decision."
Connolly, who left the Pentagon last year to teach, said last week: "Our senior civilian and military leaders were simply too afraid of the possibility of failure, however remote, and refused to allow this pilot's comrades to go into Iraq and bring him home. I wish I could tell you it was more complex than that, but it wasn't."
On Jan. 4, 1995, Perry told Secretary of State Warren M. Christopher that they should ask the Red Cross to approach the Iraqis.
The Red Cross was amenable. On Feb. 14, its Middle East director, Michel Cagneaux, met with Iraqi officials in Baghdad. "Iraqis listened intently; took copious notes," Smith, the assistant secretary of defense, wrote that day after talking to the Red Cross.
The next morning, the special-operations team went through a full-dress rehearsal in the New Mexico desert for their mission, which they code-named Isolated Ivory, presumably an allusion to Speicher's bones. But their services would not be needed.
On March 1, 1995, the Red Cross told the Pentagon that Iraq would cooperate. "Conceivably," Smith wrote, "this mission could go next week." The mission was named Operation Promise Kept.
Throughout the spring, a Pentagon spy satellite photographed the crash site every three days. The wreckage was undisturbed, military intelligence analysts reported in April.
"Our team is ready to go," Smith told his superiors on May 2, 1995. But a report to Shalikashvili from his staff three weeks later warned of unforeseen delays, "due to "bureaucratic problems' within the Iraqi government."
It would be six more months before the team entered Iraq.
Tatters, shards, but no bones
In December 1995, two years after the Qatari officer's discovery and one year after Shalikashvili's decision, the team arrived at the crash site.
The site had been scavenged.
"It appeared that people had been there before we arrived," Smith said in an interview on Friday.
There was no ejection seat. There were no bones.
Bedouin nomads handed the team a tattered flight uniform. Smith would not discuss what a subsequent analysis of the suit showed. An officer familiar with the team's findings said that it recovered one of the plane's data recorders from the Bedouins.
"The evidence showed the pilot successfully ejected from the aircraft," he said.
Smith and Liotta would not confirm or deny that. They said only that the team had emerged with a clearer picture of what happened to Speicher. That picture, like everything else about the case, remains officially secret.
Could he have survived the crash?
"We don't know," Liotta said. The investigation continues. Speicher is still listed as "killed in action _ body not recovered." The first American to fall in the Persian Gulf war remains the last to be accounted for.