WASHINGTON – In a bid to improve the government's accounting for missing U.S. war dead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday he is establishing a new Pentagon agency with more focused authority and innovative approaches.
"We're streamlining everything," Hagel told a news conference.
The Pentagon has been under congressional pressure for months to take decisive action to improve the POW-MIA accounting effort. Its failings were highlighted last summer when The Associated Press disclosed an internal Pentagon report that said the search for remains of missing soldiers on foreign battlefields was mismanaged, wasteful and acutely dysfunctional.
After lengthy study, Hagel decided to combine the functions of the two leading agencies in this field — the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, based in Hawaii, and the Defense POW-MIA Office, based in the Pentagon. Those two organizations will disappear; the new agency will be directed by a civilian official not yet named.
Michael D. Lumpkin, who is masterminding the reorganization in his temporary role as acting undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters Monday that it will take some additional weeks to implement the plan.
"We need to break away from the way of traditionally doing business that is perceived by some to be outdated, institutionalized thinking and a behavior that didn't deliver the number of remains accounted for that we had hoped," Lumpkin said.
The Congress in 2009 set a requirement that the Pentagon identify at least 200 sets of remains a year by 2015 -- a number it has not come close to achieving in recent years. Lumpkin said he thinks the 200 figure is attainable with a budget that he said would remain near recent levels of about $100 million a year.
Last year 60 sets of remains were identified. The head of the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, told Congress last August that a realistic goal is 125 identifications per year by 2018.
The Pentagon works MIA cases year-round. It lists 83,000 as unaccounted for from World War II, the Korean War and from Vietnam, although a large percentage of those — including remains lost at sea —are believed not to be recoverable.
"There's not a more poignant, emotional, important issue in our society today," Hagel told reporters, "... than you take care of the people who gave their lives to this country, and you take care of their families. And that has been a critical component of who we are as Americans from the beginning of this republic."
The issue also is among the most divisive and controversial problems facing the Pentagon.
The Pentagon's inspector general is conducting a noncriminal investigation of potential fraud, waste and abuse of resources by the accounting agencies.
Hagel said all communications with family members of the missing from past conflicts will be managed and organized by this new agency. One of the biggest complaints about the current system is from families who feel their interests have been neglected or their questions not adequately answered. Families in some cases wait decades to learn details about the circumstances of their loved one's loss, even if remains are never identified.
"They'll have a place where they can go to identify updates, questions, concerns," Hagel said. "And it won't be a one-way street. It will be a two-way street. We'll communicate with them."
Among other changes announced by Hagel, the Pentagon will establish a centralized database and case management system containing information about all missing service members. And the Pentagon will partner with private organizations with expertise in the identification of human remains.
The Pentagon also will put a single military medical examiner in charge of remains identifications. Until now that has been the responsibility of the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii, which Lumpkin said will cease to exist in its current form. The lab's scientific operations will be overseen by the medical examiner.
Hagel said he expects broad support from family members, veterans' organizations and members of Congress.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, who have led efforts on Capitol Hill to compel the Pentagon to improve its MIA accounting effort, quickly praised Hagel's move. In a joint statement, the two senators called it "a great first step."
"We're now taking concrete, enforceable steps to fix what has been a management mess," McCaskill and Ayotte said. "But as with any effort to demand accountability, the devil will be in the details and the implementation."
The POW-MIA accounting effort has suffered from a variety of problems over many decades. The AP last July disclosed an internal Pentagon report that included accusations of misconduct among those responsible for overseas missions to investigate prospects for recovering remains.
Shortly after the AP report, the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the Pentagon's effort was hampered by weak leadership, infighting and a fragmented approach to planning. The report recommended a more streamlined chain of command and other organizational changes.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last summer told a congressional hearing that the accounting situation was discouraging and "moving rapidly toward disgraceful."