WASHINGTON (AP) -- A U.S. fighter pilot lost nearly 20 years ago in the Persian Gulf War will remain classified as missing, but Navy Secretary Donald Winter expressed strong reservations about the pilot's status and cited "compelling" evidence that he is dead.
Winter's decision, issued Tuesday, was at least a temporary victory for the family of Capt. Michael "Scott" Speicher, who feared the Navy was giving up hope and preparing to declare him killed.
"The most important thing to Scott, his family and the rest of the military world was that his status would remain MIA and that we're not going to give up on our guys," said Buddy Harris, a former Navy commander and a close friend of Speicher's who has since married Speicher's ex-wife.
Harris and an attorney for Speicher's family said they had not seen all the details of the decision so they were withholding further comment.
Speicher, from outside Jacksonville, Fla., was initially declared killed when his FA-18 Hornet was shot down on the first night of the Gulf War in 1991. Dick Cheney, then the defense secretary, went on television and announced the U.S. had suffered its first casualty.
Speicher's remains were never found, and the Navy ultimately changed his status to "missing/captured" based on reported sightings of him in Iraq and a lack of evidence that he had died.
Last fall, U.S. intelligence agencies issued a report based on information in Iraq concluding that Speicher was dead. Winter convened a review panel of military officers to make a recommendation on Speicher's case.
Announcing his final decision Tuesday, Winter sharply criticized the board's recommendation to leave Speicher's status unchanged.
"My review of the board proceedings and the compelling evidence presented by the intelligence community causes me great concern about the reliability of the board's recommendation," Winter said.
He said the board based its conclusions on the belief that Speicher was alive after ejecting from his plane. The board "chose to ignore" the lack of any parachute sighting, emergency beacon signal or radio communication, Winter said.
Winter said previously reported sightings of the pilot have been discredited and that there is no credible evidence that Speicher was captured.
"For Capt. Speicher to be in captivity today one would have to accept a massive conspiracy of silence and perfectly executed deception that has lasted for over 18 years," he said.
As a result, Winter decided to drop Speicher's "captured" listing.
But "in the abundance of caution," Winter said he would continue listing Speicher as missing until another review can be done.
"Capt. Speicher is an American hero and bringing him home to his family and his country will remain a top priority for the Navy," Winter said.
Speicher and Army translator Ahmed Kousay al-Taie of Ann Arbor, Mich., are the only two missing U.S. military personnel in Iraq. Al-Taie was visiting his wife's family in central Baghdad in 2006 when a group of armed, masked men dragged him to a waiting car.