How The Pentagon’s MIA Recovery Mission Went MIA

The Pentagon has said little substantively until now about the scandal within the POW/MIA recovery program that rocked the Department of Defense this week. But a senior defense official told FP that "legitimate, analytical disagreements" within the scientific community about how best to locate the remains of missing soldiers is contributing to some of the ...

Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

The Pentagon has said little substantively until now about the scandal within the POW/MIA recovery program that rocked the Department of Defense this week. But a senior defense official told FP that "legitimate, analytical disagreements" within the scientific community about how best to locate the remains of missing soldiers is contributing to some of the problems within the sacred military mission.

Earlier this week, an internal document revealed by the Associated Press showed that the Defense Department's POW/MIA recovery program risked "total failure" without major changes to its operations.

The senior defense official for the first time pushed back against the characterization, saying that while aspects of the program need improvement and modification, many of the problems reflected in the critical report reflect disagreements on approach.

The Pentagon has said little substantively until now about the scandal within the POW/MIA recovery program that rocked the Department of Defense this week. But a senior defense official told FP that "legitimate, analytical disagreements" within the scientific community about how best to locate the remains of missing soldiers is contributing to some of the problems within the sacred military mission.

Earlier this week, an internal document revealed by the Associated Press showed that the Defense Department’s POW/MIA recovery program risked "total failure" without major changes to its operations.

The senior defense official for the first time pushed back against the characterization, saying that while aspects of the program need improvement and modification, many of the problems reflected in the critical report reflect disagreements on approach.

"Part of that perception comes from within the personnel accounting community itself," the official said in an interview with FP in which the official asked to speak on background to speak about a sensitive matter. "There are some legitimate tensions in the analytical process, and those legitimate tensions can spur action. But to the outside, it may look like discord."

The internal document — suppressed by the U.S. military command that compiled it and then disclosed this week by the AP— showed extensive, candid criticisms of the Defense Department’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting  Command, or JPAC, which has day-to-day responsibilities in tracking down thousands of missing service members lost decades ago. The internal report said the command is inept, wasteful and poorly managed. And, that same report said the POW/MIA program risked descending into "dysfunction to total failure" due to poor oversight and mismanagement.

For example, the JPAC was snookered into digging up remains in North Korea between 1996 and 2000 that the North Koreans had apparently taken out of storage and planted in former American fighting positions. Making matters worse was that the U.S. paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the North Koreans to support the excavations, according to AP. There were other criticisms in the document, from questionable travel to a low number of "leads." It was unclear how such a damning report could have seemed to catch some of the Pentagon’s senior leadership unawares, but it did. And it contained echoes of the problems with gravesites at Arlington National Cemetery and the disposal of remains at Dover Air Force Base. Both were scandals that were hugely embarrassing to the Department and in many ways offended the very core of the military ethos.

With scrutiny now coming from Capitol Hill, a new GAO audit on the matter due out next week, the integrity of a long-standing military mission that brings hundreds of thousands of veterans on their Harley motorcycles to Washington each Memorial Day is at stake.

Defense officials acknowledge that many of the issues raised in the internal report — which had been suppressed by the JPAC — are real and need not only review, but action.

But disagreements within the scientific community are also to blame for at least some of the broader problems, according to the senior defense official. One of the criticisms in the internal report indicated that the JPAC was not pursuing enough leads at any given time, and that some investigations and the travel required for them seemed unnecessary.

The official took issue with the portrayal of some of the findings of the internal report that suggested some travel appeared excessive or unnecessary. The Pentagon has yet to release the document publicly, but may soon.

"Many of the excavation sites, while in exotic or appealing-sounding locales, are simply not nice places, and require investigators and those doing the excavations must stay in austere, archeological camps for months at a time," the official said.

Other defense sources indicated that in the past, the relationship between the Pentagon and the JPAC was not strong. The JPAC, which at the time was headed by Maj. Gen. Stephen Tom, and the Pentagon’s Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs shop, which resides inside the Pentagon’s policy shop, was not thought to be as effective as it could be.  Indeed it was Tom who reportedly suppressed the internal report after other JPAC leaders assembled it. Today, however, under the leadership of Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, the connection between the JPAC and the Pentagon policy shop is much stronger, and McKeague, whose command is based in Hawaii, and the DPW/MPA shop speak regularly each week, defense officials said.

Next week, the GAO is expected to release its findings of an audit it completed to assess  DOD POW/MIA efforts overall and which is said to address organizational processes within the Department. That report will include nine recommendations, eight of which Pentagon officials agree with and will implement, according to a senior defense official. The ninth recommendation the Defense Department agreed with generally but was expected to review how best to implement it. At least two of those recommendations touch specifically on issues raised by the internal JPAC review, defense officials said.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s Strategic Management Choices Review, or SMCR, also looked at the DOD’s efforts on behalf of POW/MIA. Now officials within that office are looking at how to modify the structure of the department to reflect the fiscal environment in which it operates. DOD pays about $160 million in total for all programs that work on behalf of POWs and MIAs.

Members of Capitol Hill, including Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have requested the Pentagon release the JPAC document, and that request is under review by defense officials. "This is a deeply personal issue for thousands of families across the country — many of whom have been actively engaged in these efforts for decades," McCaskill, chairman of the Senate Subcommittee on Financial and Contracting Oversight, said in a statement. "We’ve got a responsibility to make sure this program is being run in a responsible manner, and I will not rest until we have answers."

Currently, there is what’s called a "recovery mission" underway in Alaska, and about three "investigations," one each in Korea, Germany and Belgium, defense officials told FP.

There are additional recoveries and investigations planned over the next three months in Vietnam, Cambodia, Malaysia, the Solomon Islands, Germany, Belgium and Papua New Guinea. Investigative teams first go to find, identify, scope and prepare a site before recovery can even begin. One defense official characterized that process as putting "flags in the ground," as opposed to "shovels in the ground."

The goal is "being able to find the remains, find trace evidence, where the missing person past was," the defense official said. "Or to have a full and correct narrative if we can’t recover a body about where it went missing."

As it looked to complete the latest review of the matter in coming weeks, defense officials said the Pentagon was committed to making the "fullest possible accounting" of missing service members right once again.

"To characterize it as dysfunctional, I don’t necessarily agree with that," Adm. Sam Locklear, commander of U.S. Pacific Command, told reporters in the Pentagon this week, referring to the internal document’s portrayal of the issue. "But I do think that there are areas where we need to take harder looks at how it is organized and how it’s — and how the mission sets are prioritized."

Gordon Lubold is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy. He is also the author of FP's Situation Report, an e-mailed newsletter that is blasted out to more than 70,000 national security and foreign affairs subscribers each morning that includes the top nat-sec news, breaking news, tidbits, nuggets and what he likes to call "candy." Before arriving at FP, he was a senior advisor at the United States Institute of Peace in Washington, where he wrote on national security and foreign policy. Prior to his arrival at USIP, he was a defense reporter for Politico, where he launched the popular Morning Defense early morning blog and tip-sheet. Prior to that, he was the Pentagon and national security correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, and before that he was the Pentagon correspondent for the Army Times chain of newspapers. He has covered conflict in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and other countries in South Asia, and has reported on military matters in sub-Saharan Africa, East Asia and Latin America as well as at American military bases across the country. He has spoken frequently on the sometimes-contentious relationship between the military and the media as a guest on numerous panels. He also appears on radio and television, including on CNN, public radio's Diane Rehm and To the Point, and C-SPAN's Washington Journal. He lives in Alexandria with his wife and two children. Twitter: @glubold

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