WASHINGTON – Insurgent violence in Iraq has impeded the U.S. military's search for clues to the fate of missing Navy pilot Capt. Michael Scott Speicher (search), a Marine Corps general says.
The active phase of the search ended in May and no new leads have emerged since then, Brig. Gen. Joseph J. McMenamin (search), military commander of the Iraq Survey Group (search), told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. A final intelligence report is being prepared, he said.
Speicher was shot down in an F/A-18 over central Iraq on Jan. 17, 1991, the opening night of the Gulf War. His remains were never recovered. Speculation arose over the years — including during the months leading up to the latest Iraq war — that he was being held by the Iraqis.
The Iraqi government under President Saddam Hussein maintained from the start that Speicher died when his plane was shot down.
The Navy has changed its position on Speicher's status over the years. Hours after his plane went down, the Pentagon declared him killed in action. Ten years later the Navy changed his status to MIA, citing an absence of evidence that he had died. In October 2002 the Navy changed his status to "missing-captured," although it has never said what evidence it had that he was in captivity.
McMenamin did not detail his group's findings. Based on the absence of evidence that he was ever in prison, it is generally believed he died either in the shootdown or shortly thereafter, officials have said in recent months.
"The Speicher team exhausted all in-country leads regarding the fate of Captain Speicher," McMenamin said. "No new leads have been developed since their departure." He added that the Pentagon would "immediately pursue any new leads or data generated in Iraq on the status of Captain Speicher."
Later, however, under questioning by Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., McMenamin said some leads could not be pursued to their end because of the security threat posed by the Iraq insurgency.
"It's extremely difficult to get about in parts of the country right now to follow up on some of those leads," McMenamin said. He did not say whether this was why the search team left in May.
Another problem, he said is that nomadic Bedouin tribesmen who may have information of value are difficult to track down. And some who might have information about Speicher may be intimidated by the threat of retribution by members of the former Saddam regime who are still at large.
McMenamin said some items missing from Speicher's aircraft, including his identification badge and pistol, have yet to be found. Other items were discovered when the crash site was searched some years ago. Searchers went back to the site after the fall of Baghdad last year.
McMenamin indicated he believed there are people in Iraq who know where the missing items can be found.
"It involves tracking down people somewhere in the country. Some are afraid to come forward. They're there. It's just going to involve getting to them and finding them and finding out what the answers are," he said.
Nelson, who has taken a special interest in Speicher because he was from Jacksonville, Fla., asked McMenamin what he should tell Speicher's family to assure them that the matter is not closed.
"The only thing I would be able to tell the family is that we will not give up looking for him," he replied. "If that gives them false hope, it shouldn't. As time goes on and the situation (inside Iraq) stabilizes it will give us better access to people, maybe people will be more forthcoming."
A spokeswoman for Speicher's family in Jacksonville, Fla., said they remain confident of learning his fate.
"We understand that the government has not turned up any new information," said Cindy Laquidara, the family's attorney. "We are confident we will have a resolution and a final unassailable answer to what happened to Capt. Speicher."
The search for evidence on Speicher was a lesser-noted mission of the Iraq Survey Group, whose primary effort was focused on the search for weapons of mass destruction inside Iraq. McMenamin testified briefly as part of a broader presentation on the survey group's weapons findings.