WASHINGTON (AP) — In a bid to improve the government's accounting for missing U.S. war dead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday he is establishing a new Pentagon agency with more focused authority and more senior-level oversight.
"We're streamlining everything," Hagel told a news conference.
The Pentagon has been under congressional pressure for months to take decisive action to improve the POW-MIA accounting effort. Its failings were highlighted last summer when The Associated Press disclosed an internal Pentagon report that said the search for remains of missing soldiers on foreign battlefields was mismanaged, wasteful and acutely dysfunctional.
After lengthy study, Hagel decided to combine the two leading agencies in this field — the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, based in Hawaii, and the Defense POW-MIA Office, based in the Pentagon. The combined agency will be overseen by the most senior policy official in the office of the secretary of defense.
The Pentagon works year-round in Asia and Europe to recover remains of service members listed as missing from World War II, the Korean War and from Vietnam.
"There's not a more poignant, emotional, important issue in our society today," Hagel told reporters, "... than you take care of the people who gave their lives to this country, and you take care of their families. And that has been a critical component of who we are as Americans from the beginning of this republic."
Hagel said all communications with family members of the missing from past conflicts will be managed and organized by this new agency. One of the biggest complaints about the current system is from families who feel their interests have been neglected or their questions not adequately answered.
Among a series of other changes announced by Hagel, the Pentagon will establish a centralized database and case management system containing information about all missing service members — of which there have been tens of thousands.
Hagel said he expects broad support from family members, veterans' organizations and members of Congress.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri and Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-New Hampshire, who have led efforts on Capitol Hill to compel the Pentagon to improve its MIA accounting effort, quickly praised Hagel's move. In a joint statement, the two senators called it "a great first step."
"We're now taking concrete, enforceable steps to fix what has been a management mess," McCaskill and Ayotte said. "But as with any effort to demand accountability, the devil will be in the details and the implementation."
The POW-MIA accounting effort has suffered from a variety of problems, including limited resources, over many decades. The AP last July disclosed an internal Pentagon report that included accusations of misconduct among those responsible for overseas missions to investigate prospects for recovering remains.
Shortly after the AP report, the Government Accountability Office issued a report saying the Pentagon's effort was hampered by weak leadership, infighting and a fragmented approach to planning. The report recommended a more streamlined chain of command and other organizational changes.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, last summer told a congressional hearing that the accounting situation was discouraging and "moving rapidly toward disgraceful." He said he was determined to get to the bottom of it.
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