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Lawmakers grill POW/MIA officials on inefficiencies

A Prisoner of War and Missing in Action Flag is held aloft during a POW/MIA 24-hour memorial run at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam on Sept. 21, 2012.

WASHINGTON — Leaders of the military’s POW/MIA recovery operations dismissed reports of rampant inefficiency and infighting in a Capitol Hill appearance Thursday, insisting that mostly minor changes will address public concerns about their work.

But furious lawmakers called that approach a disservice to fallen troops and their families, demanding larger changes and more proof that money being spent on the recovery efforts isn’t being wasted.

The Associated Press reported Thursday that the Pentagon's inspector general will conduct a noncriminal probe of "potential fraud, waste and abuse" of resources by the MIA accounting agencies, according to Bridget Serchak, spokeswoman for the inspector general.

The Defense Department’s Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command (JPAC) and Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) have been under intense scrutiny for weeks, after an internal review chronicling internal turf wars and questionable recovery results was made public.

A Government Accountability Office last month blasted the two agencies for similar problems, noting that the military’s search for troops who died overseas lacks clear leadership and focus, which has hampered improvement of recovery operations.

But both the JPAC commander and DPMO director told members of a Senate oversight subcommittee that the two agencies have a good working relationship and have improved efficiency already.

Maj. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, who oversees DPMO, said the two reports show “the need to take a look at our structure,” but not necessarily the need for total overhaul of operations.

That exasperated Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., who, during the 90-minute hearing, repeatedly chastised military officials for continued internal examination without deadlines or action.

“You’ve been looking and looking at this for 20 years,” Ayotte said. “We need to go beyond just looking. We need results.”

The internal report, written by management consultant and JPAC research fellow Paul Cole, found few metrics for monitoring how effective recovery field operations have been and a confused chain of command for the larger operations.

In testimony before a House Armed Services Subcommittee earlier on Thursday, Cole said his review also found a preference for using historians in search efforts when anthropologists and archeologists would be better suited for the work.

He noted the problems will severely impact plans to raise POW/MIA recoveries from 70 annually to more than 200 by 2015 — a goal mandated by Congress three years ago.

In the last five years, lawmakers have poured about $500 million into the agencies, but have seen little increase in the cases completed.

On Thursday, JPAC commander Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague said that the 2015 was likely unrealistic, due to funding restrictions and the complexity of recovery operations. He said a target of 125 a year by 2018 was more feasible, a comment that also irked lawmakers.

“If you don’t show results, the money will go away,” McCaskill said. “That’s the reality of the financial situation today.”

Defense officials have already promised a full review of the POW/MIA operations, and both Winfield and McKeague said they are developing joint plans to streamline operations as well.

Ann Mills Griffiths, chairwoman at the National League of POW/MIA Families, said she was frustrated by the day’s testimony and the lack of a plan to improve operations.

“We just want this treated like any other military priority, instead of just another mission,” she said.

Both the Senate and House have promised additional hearings on the issue this fall.

shane.leo@stripes.com
Twitter: @LeoShane

 

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