The Defense Department's inspector general has drafted a stinging rebuke of the Pentagon's struggling effort to recover the remains of missing service members from past wars, concluding the mission lacks the most elemental building blocks for success.
According to a draft report of its investigation obtained by ProPublica, the mission lacks agreed upon goals, objectives and priorities. It lacks a strategic plan and up-to-date policies. It lacks standard operating procedures, a complete centralized database of the missing, and a disinterment plan, among other flaws.
Many of these same issues were also laid out by a ProPublica and NPR investigation earlier this year.
The shortcomings have contributed to a remarkably low number of identifications each year - just 60 in 2013 out of the tens of thousands missing from World War II, Korea and Vietnam — despite about $100 million annually to get the job done.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced an overhaul in late March of the MIA effort. The current agencies involved in the mission will be consolidated within the next year into a new agency.
The revamped organization will have quite a job ahead of it. The Inspector General also laid out problems with leadership at the main agency involved with the mission, which have yet to be publicly acknowledged by the Pentagon. Complaints from about 50 current and former Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command employees, "paint a picture of long-term leadership and management problems resulting in a hostile and dysfunctional work environment," the report states.
"If left uncorrected, the problems driving these complaints will be brought into the new Defense agency...hindering mission accomplishment."
About a dozen former J-PAC employees have told ProPublica that they loved the mission but quit because of leadership issues.
When the Pentagon announced the revamp of the mission this spring, it stressed a structurally flawed system rather than issues regarding individual leaders and sidestepped any questions about accountability. Most of the leaders within the various agencies have been in charge in different positions for decades.
The Inspector General recommended that the Pentagon immediately "take corrective action" on the leadership problems, as well as cut back on staff to eliminate duplicative positions among the various agencies.
In addition to personnel issues, the IG also criticized the Pentagon for lacking defined metrics.
The report says the Pentagon needs to develop a policy to address the nearly 10,000 unidentified servicemembers who have been buried as "unknowns" in American cemeteries around the world. It also calls for realistic prioritization of the 83,000 total MIAs, including "uniform criteria and policies across conflicts to categorize and declare a MIA service member as not likely to be recoverable." About 50,000 were lost at sea in downed ships or aircraft, making their remains unlikely to be found. Failing to acknowledge that prevents objectives from being set, in both accomplishment and for efforts like collecting family DNA reference samples, the IG said.
"If DoD established policy criteria to make a "non-recoverable" determination, many MIA cases could be re-categorized and the families notified that DoD will no longer actively pursue these cases," the report states.
The Pentagon can't make all the changes on its own. The law currently requires a body to be found before someone can be taken off the MIA list.
The Pentagon also must figure out when to stop the entire mission. The IG writes that "in the absence of a defined end state and sunset criteria for actively searching for past conflict MIAs, the accounting mission can be expected to continue in perpetuity with ever-diminishing results and ever-increasing difficulty justifying costs."
In an addendum to the report, under "additional issues," the inspector general defended J-PAC's limited use of DNA, which was contrary to what ProPublica and NPR found to be standard practice around the world. The report repeated J-PAC claims that dental and other medical records are often the better and faster source of identification. Outside scientists told ProPublica that while there are limitations to DNA, J-PAC should be using it more.
The Pentagon declined to comment on the report, saying the draft report was "pre-decisional." A final report, after comments are gathered from all agencies involved, is expected to be publicly released by the end of the month.
For more, read our investigation into J-PAC, which found outdated science, poor leadership and bureaucratic overlap and will further explain the DNA issue, and for stories on the proposed changes and how those are history repeating itself.