How Is MIA Status Changed?

What Saddam might know about the first Gulf War’s only MIA.

American interrogators are pressing Saddam Hussein for information regarding the fate of Lt. Cmdr. Michael Scott Speicher, a Navy pilot listed as missing in action from the first Gulf War. Besides discovering Speicher alive, what would the Navy need to change Speicher’s official MIA status?

When switching a soldier’s status from “missing in action” to “killed in action,” the military prefers to find human remains that can be verified through DNA testing, fingerprints, or dental records. But such hard evidence isn’t always required. Formal procedure mandates that specially convened “status review boards” can conclude that there’s no “compelling evidence” that remains are recoverable and in turn issue a presumptive finding of death. Such rulings are common in circumstances involving high-speed jet crashes, explosions, or exceptionally harsh environmental conditions that can complicate the recovery process.

Sometimes, the remains found have deteriorated to the point where accurate DNA testing is impossible. In such cases, according to the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, investigators can try to establish the identity by factoring in eyewitness accounts, the presence of personal artifacts, and other circumstantial evidence.

But given the curious history of the case, the Navy will certainly go out of its way to obtain substantial remains—which likely explains why Speicher’s fate is such a high priority for Saddam’s inquisitors. Speicher’s F-18 Hornet was shot down on January 17, 1991, and he was immediately declared missing. On May 22 of that same year, the Navy approved a status review board’s finding that there was no credible evidence that the Jacksonville, Fla., native had survived the crash. A fellow American pilot who witnessed Speicher’s plane being hit by an air-to-air missile, for example, reported that he didn’t see any evidence of an ejection. The board made its recommendation despite the fact that soft-tissue fragments turned over by the Iraqis were determined not to belong to Speicher.

But soon after Speicher’s status was changed to KIA/BNR (killed in action/body not recovered), Iraqi informants began reporting that the young pilot was being held captive. In December of 1993, a Qatari hunter stumbled across the wreckage of Speicher’s plane, and a U.S. spy satellite subsequently took pictures. Those pictures revealed a “manmade symbol” next to the wreckage, which further fueled speculation that Speicher had survived. A Pentagon team investigated the crash site in 1995 but found nothing encouraging; the Navy thus reaffirmed its KIA/BNR ruling in 1996.

In 2001, however, then Secretary of the Navy Richard Danzig made the rare move of unilaterally changing Speicher’s status back to MIA. He did so largely at the behest of former Sens. Bob Smith, R-N.H., and Rod Grams, R-Minn., who continued to be troubled by the conflicting evidence on what happened to Speicher. The pair was especially uneasy over a 1997 New York Times article that reported that the crash site had been excavated by the Iraqis before the Pentagon experts arrived in 1995. Smith and Grams requested that Danzig take advantage of his powers under the United States Code, which allow the secretary of a military branch to “make any determination necessary” regarding payments to missing persons. The change in Speicher’s status entitled his wife (now remarried) to about $300,000 in back pay. She will continue to receive approximately $6,300 a month until proof of death is obtained or until her husband is found alive and can recommence accruing his salary.

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