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Too many interests and too little communication have undermined the Defense Department's efforts to find and bring home the remains of America's war dead, according to a report released by a government watch dog on Wednesday.
The Government Accountability Office said the organizations that have a role in the MIA mission have been hurt "by longstanding leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure."
The lead players behind the problem are Under Secretary of Defense for Policy James N. Miller, whose office also oversees the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs, and the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, headed by Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague.
As a result, the Pentagon is being hampered in meeting a congressionally mandated goal that it should account for 200 missing persons a year by 2015. The Defense Department averaged about 72 identifications a year during the decade ending 2012, GAO said.
The GAO report on the Pentagon's efforts to recover remains of American war dead is the second government report critical of MIA efforts this month. The first, released by the Defense Department only after a Freedom of Information Act request was filed by The Associated Press, was more critical of the program.
An internal Pentagon report found the efforts "so inept, mismanaged and wasteful that it risks descending from dysfunction to total failure," the AP reported on July 8. The official report was ordered by Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Tom, then head of the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command. Tom, who has since retired, ordered the findings buried when they were presented to him in 2012, according to an AP report.
The JPAC operation was not only inept but possible corrupt in some areas, according the Defense Department's report. From "boondoggle" digs in Europe to excavations in North Korea of remains that likely had been kept in storage for years, the internal report was a scathing indictment of JPAC's operation.
Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague, the current head of JPAC, did not dispute those who said the organization is dysfunctional.
"I'd say you're right, and we're doing something about it," McKeague told the AP in a telephone interview.
Fixes under consideration, he told AP, include possibly consolidating the accounting bureaucracy and putting its management under the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Those are the kinds of fixes that GAO says are needed.
If the Pentagon is to get on track, it has to look at reorganizing the accountability community with an emphasis on a more centralized chain of command, clarification of responsibilities, and improved planning, guidance and criteria for prioritizing cases, the agency said.
The Defense Department says there are more than 83,000 persons missing from the Vietnam and Korean wars, the Cold War, the Persian Gulf War and World War II. In 2009, Congress ordered the Pentagon to ratchet up its accountability mission and to be able to identify an average of 200 persons a year by 2015.
The agency said the Defense Department had made some progress in improving communications among the players, but failed to sustain it.
In a survey of the accountability community, GAO found that 12 out of 13 respondents agreed that a more centralized chain of command would be most effective in enabling the parties to accomplish the mission.
"Until top-level leaders at USD Policy and PACOM can ensure that all mission activities are carried out with unity of effort, inefficient and potentially avoidable overlap, unexpected operational concerns, and disagreements among members could continue to hinder the mission," GAO warned.
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