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Pentagon considers classifying Gulf War pilot as POW

Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher's aircraft was shot down on the first day of the Iraqi air war in 1991.
Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher's aircraft was shot down on the first day of the Iraqi air war in 1991.  

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Pentagon is considering changing the classification of an American pilot -- whose jet crashed in Iraq on the first night of the 1991 Gulf War -- from Missing in Action to a Prisoner of War, sources told CNN Friday.

It would be the third time the Pentagon has reclassified the case of Cmdr. Michael Speicher. However, Pentagon officials said there is still no credible evidence to suggest he is still alive.

But by reclassifying Speicher as a POW, it would put more pressure on Iraq to account for what happened to the then 43-year-old pilot, the sources said.

Speicher's F/A-18 aircraft was shot down by enemy fire on January 17, 1991, the first day of the Gulf War. He was classified as MIA the next day. A subsequent review found there was "no credible evidence" he survived the crash and Speicher was listed as Killed in Action/Body Not Recovered (KIA/BNR) on May 22, 1991.

By January 2001, his status was changed back to MIA.

Pentagon officials said there have been various reports over the years of an American pilot being held in Baghdad, but none of the reports has been judged to be very credible.

Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on Friday said he is aware of the reports, but had not seen anything new. "Some of it is speculation. Some of it -- most of it is unauthoritative, that is to say, it is coming from people who heard from somebody about something," he said.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, said there is no evidence to prove Speicher died in the crash and that he should be listed as a POW.

"I think we left somebody behind. I don't think there's any question about it," Roberts told CNN. "More than likely he was captured and was a prisoner of the Iraqis."

After the war, Iraq released 21 U.S. military personnel, and all U.S. and coalition airmen downed over land were accounted for, with the exception of Speicher.

Iraq provided a small amount of human remains said to be of an American pilot, but tests showed they were not those of Speicher.

The Pentagon is seeking a "full accounting" for happened to Speicher, and while publicly U.S. officials express the hope he is still alive, privately officials admit there is no evidence he is.

"It's the right position to take since we can't prove he's dead," one official told CNN.

Five months after Speicher's crash, following a secretary of the Navy status review board that found "no credible evidence" to suggest he had survived the shootdown, his status was changed to KIA/BNR.

In December 1995, investigators from the Navy and Army's Central Identification Laboratory entered Iraq and conducted a thorough excavation of the crash site. In September 1996, based on a comprehensive review of evidence accumulated since the initial KIA/BNR determination, the secretary of the Navy reaffirmed the presumptive finding of death.

But over the years since that determination was made, the Navy and U.S. government have consistently sought new information and continued to analyze all available information to resolve Speicher's fate.

Roberts said it is imperative for the United States to pursue the case on the assumption Speicher may still be alive and held by Iraq. Doing otherwise, he said, would be unfair to Speicher, his family, and every U.S. servicemember.

The senator said he wants to make sure the Pentagon does not ignore such critical intelligence information in the future.

"We have changed his classification from MIA, now we're waiting on POW," Roberts said. "We changed the laws so it won't happen again in terms of intelligence assessment. We are making progress."

-- CNN Military Affairs Correspondent Jamie McIntyre contributed to this report.




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