WASHINGTON (AP) — The Pentagon’s effort to account for tens of thousands of Americans missing in action from foreign wars is so inept, mismanaged and wasteful that it risks descending from “dysfunction to total failure,” according to an internal study suppressed by military officials.
Largely beyond the public spotlight, the decades-old pursuit of bones and other MIA evidence is sluggish, often duplicative and subjected to too little scientific rigor, the report says.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the internal study after Freedom of Information Act requests for it by others were denied.
The report paints a picture of a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a military-run group known as JPAC and headed by a two-star general, as woefully inept and even corrupt.
The command is digging up too few clues on former battlefields, relying on inaccurate databases and engaging in expensive “boondoggles” in Europe, the study concludes.
JPAC’s leaders authorized the study of its inner workings, but the then-commanding general, Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Tom, disavowed it and suppressed the findings when they were presented by the researcher last year. Now retired, Tom banned its use “for any purpose,” saying the probe went beyond its intended scope. His deputy concurred, calling it a “raw, uncensored draft containing some contentious material.”
The AP obtained two internal memos describing the decision to bury the report. The memos raised no factual objections but said the command would not consider any of the report’s findings or recommendations.
The failings cited by the report reflect one aspect of a broader challenge to achieving a uniquely American mission – accounting for the estimated 83,348 service members still listed as missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
A sense of emptiness and unanswered questions haunted many families of the missing throughout the second half of the 20th century, when science and circumstance did not permit the almost exact accounting for the dead and the missing that has been achieved in Iraq and Afghanistan. While the government’s efforts have provided closure for hundreds of families of the missing in recent years, many others are still waiting.
Over time, the obscure government bureaucracies in charge of the accounting task have largely managed to escape close public scrutiny despite clashing with a growing number of advocacy groups and individuals such as Frank Metersky, a Korean War veteran who has spent decades pressing for a more aggressive and effective U.S. Effort.
The outlook for improvement at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, he says, is not encouraging.
“Today it’s worse than ever,” he says.
The internal report by Paul M. Cole was never meant to be made public. It is unsparing in its criticisms:
- In recent years the process by which JPAC gathers bones and other material useful for identifications has “collapsed” and is now “acutely dysfunctional.”
- JPAC is finding too few investigative leads, resulting in too few collections of human remains to come even close to achieving Congress’s demand for a minimum 200 identifications per year by 2015. Of the 80 identifications that JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory made in 2012, only 35 were derived from remains recovered by JPAC. Thirty-eight of the 80 were either handed over unilaterally by other governments or were disinterred from a U.S. military cemetery. Seven were from a combination of those sources.
- Some search teams are sent into the field, particularly in Europe, on what amount to boondoggles. No one is held to account for “a pattern of foreign travel, accommodations and activities paid for by public funds that are ultimately unnecessary, excessive, inefficient or unproductive.” Some refer to this as “military tourism.”
- JPAC lacks a comprehensive list of the people for whom it’s searching. Its main database is incomplete and “riddled with unreliable data.”
- “Sketch maps” used by the JPAC teams looking for remains on the battlefield are “chronically unreliable,” leaving the teams “cartigraphically blind.” Cole likened this to 19th century military field operations.
Absent prompt and significant change, “the descent from dysfunction to total failure … is inevitable,” Cole concluded.
He directed most of his criticism at the field operations that collect bones and other material, as opposed to the laboratory scientists at JPAC who use that material to identify the remains. Cole is a management consultant and recognized research expert in the field of accounting for war remains; he still works at JPAC.
More broadly, the government organizations responsible for the accounting mission, including the Pentagon’s Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, which is in charge of policy, have sometimes complicated their task by making public statements that their critic’s view as disingenuous or erroneous.
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