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Picking up the pieces

Just when the Air Force's top leaders may have thought their week couldn't get worse on Tuesday, it did.

Congressional lawmakers are angry about plans to cut hundreds of airplanes, some 10,000 airmen and eventually bases across the country. So are the nation's governors, who sent Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz a letter this week "strongly opposing disproportionate cuts" to the Guard and Reserve.

Then came Tuesday's DoD release of the report by retired Gen. John Abizaid about the Dover AFB mortuary units, which detailed years of mishandling the remains of fallen servicemembers and even, we learned, some victims of the Sept. 11 attacks.

Abizaid insisted his report was not about that -- he had not been charged with re-doing the Air Force's and other earlier investigations into what had come before. No, his job, he said, was to look forward, and recommend how DoD, the Air Force and the Army could improve the Dover Port Mortuary. But as part of a conscientious effort to do that, Abizaid and his panel had to look into history to get "context" for the mistakes and come up with the best ways to avoid them in the future.

So DoD gave reporters copies of Abizaid's shortly before the general himself was set to brief them. And even though he was keen to focus on the future and talk about his recommendations, the reporters, led by the Washington Post's Craig Whitlock, were shocked at all the other stuff Abizaid had uncovered:

The Sept. 11 victims details. Air Force officials' decision to treat servicemember remains as "biomedical waste."  The $25,000 settlement paid to the spouse of a Marine after he was cremated together with his personal effects. The servicemember remains handled in cardboard boxes. This was all on top of details the Post and other news outlets had already reported last year.

But Abizaid did not accept that those parts of his report were the news -- he's been around for a long time and knows that when you're dealing with reporters, they can ask whatever they want but you can talk about whatever you want.

"This focus of the panel was to look forward," he said, "to see what was wrong, to correct what was wrong or make a forward- looking sort of recommendation about what needed to be fixed. We did not spend a great deal of time and effort and energy looking into what you're talking about."

The other thing Abizaid kept saying was, Ask the Air Force. Everyone knew Donley and Schwartz were due up in the briefing room later in the afternoon, and Abizaid said they were read in about his findings:

"I briefed the secretary yesterday, Chief of Staff of the Army, Secretary of the Army, Chief of Staff of the Air Force, Secretary of the Air Force and other people as well -- Deputy Secretary of Defense was in there as well, and the Chairman of Joint Chiefs -- on the findings of this report," he said, per the Pentagon's official transcript.

Only when Donley and Schwartz arrived, they had no idea about any of it. Reporters wanted confirmation that the Sept. 11 victims' remains had been incinerated at Dover. They wanted to know why the Air Force's investigation had only gone back a few years, ostensibly for lack of records, but the timeline in Abizaid's report began in 1990. They wanted to know when the Air Force had learned about the disposition of the Sept. 11 victims' remains.

Schwartz snapped at the New York Times' Elisabeth Bumiller: "Elisabeth, you got the report before we did.  We've both been on Capitol Hill for the last four hours.  Allow us at least the opportunity to go through the report ourselves."

Wait -- what? Abizaid said earlier in the day that he had briefed Schwartz and Donley -- along with Secretary Panetta, Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and others. Now the two top leaders of the Air Force were saying they had learned about a story -- which would be included in every print, online, TV and radio news report that day -- at their own press conference, from the reporters there.

NBC News' Jim Miklaszewski erased any doubt: "Understanding that perhaps you haven't had a chance to look at the Abizaid report, but in regard to the portion where it talks about remains from 9/11 from the Pentagon and Shanksville were disposed of in a landfill, were both of you totally unaware of that previously? Did it take you by surprise?  Is this -- is this the first you're hearing of it or were you aware of that?"

Answered Donley: "This is new information to me."

He and Schwartz had inadvertently confirmed the thesis of Abizaid's report: The mortuary mission is an "orphan command," disconnected from the highest levels of the service. That's not really Donley and Schwartz's fault, though; they and the rest of the DoD infrastructure inherited the organizational mishmash up there.

But it didn't ease the embarrassment. DoDBuzz received many unsolicited emails Tuesday from airmen stationed all over the world who said they were ashamed of the way the story had played out: Not a good day to sit in the HQ wearing a blue suit, one wrote.

The befuddling thing about Tuesday's announcement was that Donley arrived with prepared remarks endorsing Abizaid's recommendations for improving the oversight and command at the Dover mortuary. So the various staffs in the OSD and Air Force neighborhoods of the Building had evidently been working this -- they just apparently had not read the full report. Abizaid may have only briefed leaders on his recommendations, not the other stuff, on the assumption no one reads whole reports anyway.

The silver lining here is that the Air Force can probably recover: Abizaid compared the mortuary mission to the Air Force's nuclear mission, which languished to the point of mishaps in the interregnum between the glory days of Strategic Air Command and the nouveau regime of Global Strike Command.

"We think that just like in the nuclear surety business, we need to understand that this is a hundred percent no-fail mission," he said. "And that means the same level of care needs to be taken with regard to the final resting place of our fallen that we do in safeguarding our nuclear munitions. It's, I think, hugely important to understand it's a no-fail mission, perfection is expected, and there has to be very stringent oversight."

With that as a template, the prospects look good for the Air Force. Its care and attention to detail are legendary -- once it starts paying attention.

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