WASHINGTON — Poor leadership and a hostile work environment could continue to hinder efforts to recover the remains of missing troops despite a complete overhaul planned by the Department of Defense, according to an audit released Friday.
The DoD inspector general found that the issues have damaged morale in the MIA/POW accounting community for years and caused dysfunction that could spill over when a newly created command takes over in January.
The audit is the IG’s final assessment of the embattled Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action Accounting Command and the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office following a series of scandals and congressional criticism over the past year. It details an accounting effort that is disjointed, inefficient and unproductive — and that has stoked dissatisfaction among those who work within it.
About 40 current and former employees came forward with allegations of dereliction and abuse, mostly within JPAC and the Central Identification Laboratory, which specializes in skeletal identifications.
“Taken together, the complaints paint a picture of long-term leadership and management problems resulting in a hostile and dysfunctional work environment, and low morale throughout the accounting community,” according to the audit. “If left uncorrected, the problems driving these complaints will be brought into the new Defense agency created by the reorganization of the accounting community.”
Nearly half of those interviewed — 44 percent — told auditors they had experience a hostile work environment. Despite internal work climate surveys conducted as recently as April, they said “the command has not implemented corrective actions and the problems persist.”
Another 18 percent cited poor leadership and unprofessional behavior, the audit found.
The IG launched its investigation last fall and initial findings prompted the DoD to announce in March it will replace JPAC and the DPMO with a new streamlined agency to track and recover remains. The new agency will combine the separate functions of JPAC and DPMO as well as the Air Force Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory and be headed by a director appointed by the president.
The accounting community spends $100 million annually but identified only about 60 sets of remains last year despite a goal set by Congress to find 200 missing troops annually beginning in 2015.
Meanwhile, the agencies have been stung with revelations that they staged repatriation ceremonies and allegations they did not follow up on MIA leads and even argued against identifying remains in government custody even when evidence suggested it was possible.
Jed Henry, a filmmaker and journalist, worked for years to independently identify missing World War II casualty Pfc. Lawrence S. Gordon after receiving little help from the DoD.
The troubles at JPAC and DPMO could persist if current leadership is not purged, Henry said.
“Until you get new people in with some new ideas and willingness to try some new things,” he said Monday, “the culture is just going to rebreed itself.”
The audit also found a variety of other shortcomings in the accounting community.
Thousands of troops buried in cemeteries as unknowns could be identified but the DoD agencies have no policy for exhumation, according to the audit.
The closest thing to a policy for digging up the graves came from a 1999 department memorandum, which expired six months after it was written.
“JPAC officials stated they could potentially account for more than 300 unaccounted-for personnel believed to be from the USS Oklahoma currently buried as unknowns in Hawaii,” the IG said.
Infighting between JPAC and DPMO over authority and recovery mission guidelines has stymied the creation of such policies.
DoD regulations for the accounting community expired in 2012 but the agencies have been unable to settle on updates, according to the audit.
The dysfunction has also led the agencies to keep separate lists of MIAs and POWs, which do not always match.
“Without a comprehensive and agreed-upon listing of MIAs from all past conflicts, the accounting community has been unable to effectively know who is actually missing, focus its recovery efforts accordingly, and effectively plan the recovery of the missing,” the IG reported.