Someone asked me why I am cynical about the Department of Defense’s MIA accounting efforts. After all, they asked, haven’t they reorganized everything? Streamlined the agencies and fired the incompetents?
You might remember it all started in June 2013, when Bob Burns of the Associated Press broke the story that the Government Accountability Office was releasing a scathing report titled:
DOD’s POW/MIA Mission: Top-Level Leadership Attention Needed to Resolve Longstanding Challenges in Accounting for Missing Persons from Past Conflicts
Actually, this report was pretty watered down and didn’t even begin to describe the debacle that the POW/MIA accounting program had become. The whole report could have been summed up by saying that DoD was accounting for less than 75 MIA’s each year, out of over 80,000, and that the cost averaged more than two million dollars each.
On top of the agencies’ already miserable performance, one of the genius wordsmiths they hired to prepare their excuse for not meeting the congressionally mandated targets shot himself in the foot and managed to take down most of the leadership of JPAC and DPMO as well. Let’s say there was a little explaining to do over that.
But it got some attention on Capital Hill and both House and Senate committees held hearings on August 1, 2013. There was some pretty tough talk that day and the leaders of both DPMO and JPAC were told to clean up their acts.
There was more tough talk a few weeks later when DoD was warned not to retaliate against whistleblowers who brought the problems to light and the Inspector General was requested to investigate. Letter to DOD OIG Regarding JPAC DPMO Whistleblowers
DoD apparently got the message and figured that since they didn’t intend to change the way they do business, they could change their image so they contracted with an outside public relations firm (who was paid more than $7,500,000) to improve their image on this issue. They also began holding bi-weekly conference calls with organizations representing MIA families. Rumor is that the largest such group, the National League of Families, felt threatened and demanded that other groups be excluded. Whatever the reason, three other groups were removed from the update conference calls. Their seats at the table were taken by such as the Red Cross, Fisher House, Wounded Warriors and other veterans groups with no apparent interest or involvement in the MIA issue. That showed who was really in charge.
In March of 2014, the Office of the Secretary of Defense, Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) released yet another report critical of the POW/MIA accounting efforts: Organizational Structure Review of the Personnel Accounting Community. Nothing unexpected in this report except that by now the annual budget was up to $193,000,000 for personnel accounting.
In July 2014, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel restated his position that the POW/MIA community needed “Sweeping Changes.”
Soon thereafter, Dr. Thomas D. Holland, Scientific Director & Deputy to the Commander for Central Identification Laboratory Operations, announced that he had been dismissed effective January 1, 2015. Rumor was that his top subordinates would soon follow. Finally, head(s) were beginning to roll. Not.
In October, 2014, the long awaited Inspector General’s report was published. A draft had been leaked several months earlier and the final report was significantly watered down while it sat on the desk of the Secretary of Defense. Administrative Readiness – Assessment of the Department of Defense Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Community
After all these studies and reports it was pretty apparent that something had to be done to keep DoD at least looking like they cared about the MIA issue. They had delayed as long as possible and people were getting restless. Obviously, more whitewash was needed.
On January 31, 2015, the two major agencies, JPAC and DPMO were rolled in to a single command, the Defense Personnel Accounting Agency or DPAA. The two star commander of the agency formerly known as JPAC, Kelly McKeague, became Deputy Commander of DPAA.
Johnie Webb, the civilian director of external relations and forty year alumni of JPAC became the Interim Director of Communications for DPAA.
Dr. Tom Holland, the former laboratory Scientific Director and the only man said to have been fired still had a desk in the CIL lab and had yet to miss a paycheck from the agency formerly known as JPAC. His new position is now head of the J9 Section of DPAA where he is designated to be in charge of “3rd Party Programs” ostensibly to garner the assistance of Non Governmental Organizations (NGOs) in the search for MIAs and provide them with cooperation and resources.
Finding someone to head this new and agency was tough. The political appointee who was originally in the position had done his time and gone on to bigger and better things as expected. Over the subsequent two years the office had gone through at least three interim directors.
Retired Lieutenant General Linnington, who headed the search committee, was apparently unsuccessful in finding anyone who met his high standards, so he took the job himself and he becomes the new Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for POW/MIA affairs. That’s dedication.
So, it has taken two years, but they finally have a new name for the agency and a full staff in place – actually it is the old staff and nothing changed. Of course, the same people who made the mess are still there, no one has been fired and they are ready to hit the ground running, er, well. still doing nothing. Which is good since the already low number of identifications of MIA’s has fallen even further while things were in the process of being fixed. The number of identifications would probably be a negative number if they had to start from scratch. (Actually, if you count the incorrect identifications, it is a negative number.)
Since General Linnington is another retired military guy with absolutely no experience or training in civilian management or expertise in the mission, he apparently has a plan to do the same things and get different results from an organization that has kept all of its proven management bad apples in functional control. Hope and change has to work out sooner or later for someone.
To insure that there are no more problems in the future, there is a new crackdown inside the agency formerly known as JPAC to threaten anyone who talks to or who provides information to ANYONE outside JPAC/DPAA. The people have been told that they will lose their jobs. Apparently, the leadership has taken to heart the demands that someone be fired and they intend to nail the whistleblowers who started this whole thing. That obviously hasn’t worked out well as the tighter they squeeze, the more the rank and file talk.
With that kind of record, why would anyone be cynical about MIA’s ever being recovered?