Efforts to locate American soldiers missing in action from World War II, Korea, and Vietnam are at risk of descending from “acutely dysfunctional” to “total failure,” according to an internal study conducted by the U.S. Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
JPAC, whose mission is to conduct “global search, recovery, and laboratory operations to identify unaccounted-for Americans from past conflicts,” currently operates facilities in Southeast Asia and Hawaii and recently opened a new annex at Offutt Air Force Base in Nebraska. The internal study suggests that, despite the resources and technology available, the group has been doing a poor job fulfilling its mission.
The Associated Press reported Sunday that the study’s findings were suppressed by Army Major General Stephen Tom last year after the researcher discovered that the methods used to collect MIA evidence were corrupt, “often duplicative,” and “subjected to too little scientific rigor.” Tom, now retired, claimed that the study had gone beyond the intended scope and banned its use “for any purpose.” Requests for the report filed under the Freedom of Information Act were denied until the Associated Press successfully obtained a copy.
The study, conducted by JPAC management consultant and research expert Paul M. Cole, highlights a number of alarming failures by JPAC in its ongoing search for the estimated 83,348 American service members that are still officially listed as missing in action. His criticisms focused on the collapse of JPAC’s process for collecting bones and other evidence used to identify service members:
—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 200 identifications per year by 2015. Of the 80 identifications that JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory made in 2012, only 35 were derived from remains recovered by JPAC. Thirty-eight of the 80 were either handed over unilaterally by other governments or were disinterred from a U.S. military cemetery. Seven were from a combination of those sources.
—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’s searching. Its main database is incomplete and “riddled with unreliable data.”
—”Sketch maps” used by the JPAC teams looking for remains on the battlefield are “chronically unreliable,” leaving the teams “cartigraphically blind.” Cole likened this to 19th century military field operations.
The inaccuracy, wasteful spending, and incompetence are just the beginning. The report also testified to the corrupt practices used by the Pentagon’s MIA branch, including “salting” recovery sites with the help of foreign governments:
In North Korea, the JPAC was snookered 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 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.
Cole advised that unless significant changes were made immediately, JPAC’s “descent from dysfunction to total failure . . . is inevitable.” He also pointed out the broader bureaucratic challenges that the group faces, including complications arising from erroneous statements made by other organizations involved in accounting for missing service members.
Air Force Major General Kelly K. McKeague, JPAC’s current commander, acknowledged the truth of the report and has stated that a number of changes, including putting JPAC under the management of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are being considered.