As President George W. Bush shifts his sights from Osama bin Laden to Saddam Hussein, a down-on-his-luck Oregon marketing consultant is asking Uncle Sam to pay him $5 million for the last time the U.S. military tried to bump off the Iraqi president.
In January 1991, at the start of the Gulf War, Baghdad released a photo of Hussein, purportedly taken in an underground operations room. David Winclair was sitting in his home watching the evening news. As the announcer droned on about Saddam Hussein's secret location, Winclair suddenly recognized Hussein's surroundings. The "operations room" was actually the interior of a Blue Bird Wanderlodge motor home, just like the one Winclair owned.
Best known for its school buses, the Georgia-based Blue Bird Corp. also manufactures the Wanderlodge, which goes for upwards of $350,000 a pop. Since few people would recognize this luxury interior as a fully mobile vehicle, Winclair, who was then living in New York, thought he should let his government in on Saddam's secret. He finally got through to Army Intelligence. A colonel called him back, debriefed him for hours and told him to keep quiet on this matter of national security, Winclair says. He heard nothing more for several weeks, until unconfirmed news reports from London said the U.S. had launched "Operation Blue Bird" to assassinate Hussein by destroying a convoy of motor homes.
After the war ended in June, The Washington Post confirmed that there had been a military operation in which "U.S. Air Force planes patrolled areas likely to be traveled by Saddam's mobile command center." Hussein was almost killed midway through the war when two F-16 Falcons hit motor homes at both ends of a motorcade, the Post reported, but left Hussein's Wanderlodge, planted in the middle, unscathed.
Meanwhile, Winclair possesses a written memento of thanks that seems to back up his story. After requesting some notice from the government, Winclair received a letter from Lt. Col. Ronald Sturmer of U.S. Army Foreign Intelligence in May 1993. "During the Persian Gulf War several television channels showed pictures of Saddam Hussein, President of Iraq, conferring with his military staff in a setting that was identified as a 'bunker'," Sturmer wrote. "You took the initiative of contacting Army Intelligence and providing details about the vehicle.... As a result of your astute observation and patriotism this information was reported to U.S. military forces in the Persian Gulf for its use." Of course, Sturmer didn't specify how Winclair's tip was used, or whether it was the only such piece of information received.
Winclair says he didn't think much of his tip until bin Laden surfaced as our new international boogeyman in 1998, when American embassies were bombed in East Africa. "When the embassies were bombed, there was a $5 million reward for any information about bin Laden," he says.
In addition, the years following the Gulf War were unkind to Winclair. He moved to Oregon in 1992 and, soon after, a series of illnesses and a divorce pushed him to the brink of bankruptcy. The next year, unable to keep up with the mortgage on his Gresham house, he decided to ask the government for a reward.
He notes that currently there is a $25 million reward for information leading to bin Laden' capture. "I gave them information comparable to that," he says. "If I were greedy, I would have asked for money from the beginning."
In December, the Army's Foreign Torts Branch turned him down, saying that the deadline for filing a claim was in 1992, and there was no evidence of government negligence. Winclair, who lost his house two weeks ago, must appeal the Army's denial of his claim by the end of this month.
He says he plans to do so, from the comfort of his new digs: his trusty Blue Bird motor home.