The Navy has changed the status of Lt. Cmdr. Michael Speicher from killed in action to missing.
President Clinton said Thursday that the United States has new information about a Navy fighter pilot shot down over Iraq during the 1991 Persian Gulf War that indicates he survived the crash "and that he might be alive."
Clinton commented in a CBS Radio interview in which he was asked about the Navy's announcement that it has changed the status of Lt. Cmdr. Michael Speicher of Jacksonville from killed in action to missing. Speicher was shot down in an F-18 fighter from the carrier USS Saratoga on the opening night of the war.
Clinton said the information about Speicher's case "makes us believe that at least he survived his crash . . . and that he might be alive." He said U.S. officials have begun trying to determine whether Speicher is alive, and "if he is, where he is and how we can get him out."
"Since he was a uniform service person, he's clearly entitled to be released, and we're going to do everything we can to get him out," Clinton said. The president cautioned, however, that he did not want the change in Speicher's status to "raise false hopes."
Clinton's comments went far beyond the Navy's statement, which was brief and did not mention the possibility that Speicher could be alive. One day after it notified Speicher's family of the decision to change his status to MIA, the Navy said Thursday that "additional information and analysis" led Navy Secretary Richard Danzig to reverse earlier determinations that Speicher had died.
The Navy did not explain what new information it had obtained. As recently as 1996 it had reaffirmed a 1991 "finding of death."
The Associated Press, citing Pentagon officials, reported that Danzig acted because of substantial evidence that Speicher may not have died in the crash.
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 State Department sent a new diplomatic note to Baghdad demanding that the Iraqi government tell all it knows about Speicher's fate.
"We don't have a response from Baghdad," Philip Reeker, a State Department spokesman, said Thursday.
He said similar U.S. notes would be sent Iraqi representatives at the United Nations in New York and in Geneva.
"We do believe that the Iraqis hold additional information that could help resolve the case of Cmdr. Speicher, and they are obligated to provide that information to us," Reeker said.
In March 1999, Republican Sens. Bob Smith of New Hampshire and Rod Grams of Minnesota asked Danzig to change Speicher's status to missing in action, reflecting evidence of doubt about whether he survived the crash. Smith met with Danzig again Dec. 20 on the matter, officials said.
In a letter dated Dec. 18, Sandy Berger, President Clinton's national security adviser, told Smith a recent intelligence assessment "has stimulated a high-level review of this case _ several new actions are under way and additional steps are under intense review."
Berger's letter, provided to the Associated Press on Wednesday, did not specify what actions were contemplated.
Speicher's Navy F-18 Hornet was shot down on Jan. 16, 1991, in an air-to-air battle with an Iraqi fighter. He was the first American lost in the war and the last still unaccounted for.
Upon announcing the loss of Speicher that night, Dick Cheney, defense secretary at the time, told a news conference he was dead. A short time later the Pentagon changed his status to missing in action.
On May 22, 1991, the Navy approved the official "finding of death." That action changed his official status from missing to killed in action.
Smith and Grams have said before that Pentagon officials initially told them evidence had not been found to indicate that Speicher could have survived the crash. However, in May 1994 _ more than three years after Speicher was shot down _ Pentagon officials indicated in a secret memorandum that a U.S. spy satellite had photographed a "man-made symbol" at the crash site earlier that year. Some military officers said they interpreted the symbol as a sign that the Navy pilot might have survived the crash.
The Pentagon had been alerted to the crash site after a hunter looking for wild game in western Iraq stumbled across the ruins of an American fighter jet, the New York Times reported in 1997. The hunting party 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.
A plan was devised in 1994 to conduct a covert operation into Iraq to search the crash site for clues to Speicher's fate, but it was scrapped in December 1994 by Army Gen. John Shalikashvili, then the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. The general ruled the risk of casualties was too high to justify the secret mission.
Instead, the Pentagon asked the International Committee of the Red Cross to approach the Iraqis. On March 1, 1995, the Red Cross told the Pentagon that Iraq would cooperate, but the trip was delayed because of bureaucratic problems within the Iraqi government.
In December 1995, two years after the Qatari hunter's discovery, U.S. crash site specialists from the Defense Department working with the Red Cross entered Iraq. When they got to the crash site they found it had been excavated.
There was no ejection seat. There were no bones.
Bedouin nomads handed the team a tattered flight uniform. According to the New York Times report, an officer familiar with the team's findings said it recovered one of the plane's data recorders from the Bedouins.
The New York Times quoted the officer as saying the evidence showed the pilot successfully ejected from the aircraft.
Information from the New York Times was included in this report.