WASHINGTON — The Pentagon’s effort to account for tens of thousands of Americans missing in action from foreign wars is so inept, mismanaged and wasteful that it risks descending from “dysfunction to total failure,” according to an internal study that was suppressed by military officials.
Largely beyond the public spotlight, the decades-old pursuit of bones and other MIA evidence is sluggish, often duplicative and subjected to too little scientific rigor, the report says.
The Associated Press obtained a copy of the internal study when Freedom of Information Act requests for it by others were denied.
The report paints a picture of a Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, a military-run group known as JPAC and headed by a two-star general, as woefully inept and even corrupt. The command is digging up too few clues on former battlefields, relying on inaccurate databases and engaging in expensive “boondoggles” in Europe, the study concluded.
In North Korea, the JPAC was duped into digging up remains between 1996 and 2000 that the North Koreans apparently had taken out of storage and planted in former American fighting positions, the report said.
Washington paid the North Koreans hundreds of thousands of dollars to “support” these excavations.
Some recovered bones had been drilled or cut, suggesting that they had been used by the North Koreans to make a lab skeleton.
Some of those remains have since been identified, but their compromised condition added time and expense, and “cast doubt over all of the evidence recovered” in North Korea, the study said. The practice of “salting” recovery sites was confirmed to the AP by one U.S. participant.
JPAC’s leaders authorized the study of its inner workings, but the then-commanding general, Army Maj. Gen. Stephen Tom, disavowed it and suppressed the findings when they were presented by the researcher last year. Now retired, Tom banned its use “for any purpose,” saying the probe went beyond its intended scope. His deputy concurred, calling it a “raw, uncensored draft containing some contentious material.”
The AP obtained two internal memos describing the decision to bury the report. The memos raised no factual objections but said that the command would not consider any of the report’s findings or recommendations.
‘It’s worse than ever’
The failings cited by the report reflect one aspect of a broader challenge to achieving a uniquely American mission — accounting for the estimated 83,348 service members listed as missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam.
Shelia Reese, 62, of Chapel Hill, N.C., yearns for the father she never met, the boy soldier who went to war and never returned.
She was 2 months old when her family learned a week before Christmas 1950 that Pfc. Kenneth F. Reese, a 19-year-old artilleryman, was missing in action in North Korea.
To this day, the military can’t tell her whether he was killed in action or died in captivity. His body has never been found.
“It changed my whole life. I’ve missed this man my whole life,” she says.
She’s not alone.
Reese is among 7,910 unaccounted for from Korea, down from 8,200 when the war ended 60 years ago this month.
The obscure government bureaucracies in charge of accounting for the missing have largely managed to escape close public scrutiny, despite clashing with a growing number of advocacy groups and individuals such as Frank Metersky, a Korean War veteran who has spent decades pressing for a more aggressive and effective effort.
The outlook for improvement at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, he says, is not encouraging.
“Today, it’s worse than ever,” he says.
People disagree on the extent of the problem. But even the JPAC commander, Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague, says he would not dispute those who say his organization is dysfunctional.
“I’d say you’re right, and we’re doing something about it,” McKeague said from his headquarters in Hawaii. He noted that changes, possibly to include consolidating the accounting bureaucracy and putting its management under the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, are under consideration.
A litany of failures
The internal report by Paul M. Cole was never meant to be made public. It is unsparing in its criticisms:
• In recent years, the process by which JPAC gathers bones and other material useful for identifications has “collapsed” and is “acutely dysfunctional.”
• JPAC is finding too few investigative leads, resulting in too few collections of human remains to come even close to achieving Congress’s demand for a minimum of 200 identifications per year by 2015.
• Some search teams are sent into the field, particularly in Europe, on what amount to boondoggles. No one is held to account for “a pattern of foreign travel, accommodations and activities paid for by public funds that are ultimately unnecessary, excessive, inefficient or unproductive.” Some refer to this as “military tourism.”
• JPAC lacks a comprehensive list of the people for whom it is searching. Its main database is incomplete and “riddled with unreliable data.”
Absent prompt and significant change, “the descent from dysfunction to total failure … is inevitable,” Cole concluded.
He directed most of his criticism at the field operations that collect bones and other material, as opposed to the laboratory scientists at JPAC who use that material to identify the remains.
Cole is a management consultant and recognized research expert in the field of accounting for war remains; he still works at JPAC.
Hope wears away
Accounting for the nation’s war dead has been a politically charged issue for decades. The debate is not about the practicality of the mission, which some might question, but how it should be pursued.
Sometimes overlooked amid the squabbling is the emotional toll on the families of the missing. They are often bewildered by the bureaucracy and left to watch hope wear away with the passage of time.
In 1975, more than two decades after Pfc. Kenneth F. Reese was declared missing in Korea, his widow, Chris Tench, who had by then remarried, described her feelings in her local newspaper, the Gastonia (N.C.) Gazette.
She wrote that initially she was relieved to realize that the policeman who delivered the news about Reese on Dec. 18, 1950, was saying that her husband was missing, not dead. He might turn up alive, she recalled thinking.
Later she thought differently.
“Missing isn’t dead,” she wrote. “It’s worse than dead.”