DOD's POW/MIA Mission:

Top-Level Leadership Attention Needed to Resolve Longstanding Challenges in Accounting for Missing Persons from Past Conflicts

GAO-13-619: Published: Jul 17, 2013. Publicly Released: Jul 17, 2013.

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Brenda S. Farrell
(202) 512-3604
farrellb@gao.gov

 

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What GAO Found

While the Department of Defense (DOD) has made some progress in promoting communication among the several organizations responsible for accounting for missing persons--known collectively as the accounting community--DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish its missing persons accounting mission is being undermined by longstanding leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure. Leadership from the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy (USD Policy) and U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM) have not been able to resolve disagreements among accounting community members, thereby impacting DOD's ability to meet the mandated goal of increasing its capability and capacity to account for 200 missing persons a year by 2015. DOD averaged 72 identifications annually in the decade ending in 2012. GAO found the following areas of progress and continuing areas of weakness:

  • In response to a 2009 direction from the Deputy Secretary of Defense, the accounting community has begun drafting a community-wide plan to meet the accounting-for goal, but as of July 2013 this plan had not been completed due to a fragmented approach to planning and disputes among community members. Without a community-wide plan, members have had varied success in obtaining resources to meet the goal.
  • DOD is working to clarify its guidance, but roles and responsibilities for community members are not well defined, and this lack of clarity has led to overlap in key aspects of the mission such as investigations.
  • DOD does not have agreements with all combatant commands to conduct operations to find missing persons outside of PACOM's area of responsibility. JPAC negotiated an updated agreement with European Command, signed in April 2013, but it has not negotiated similar agreements with any of the other four geographic combatant commands.
  • While DOD has established criteria to prioritize recovery efforts for missing persons from the Vietnam War, it has not established criteria to prioritize potentially recoverable missing persons from other conflicts.
  • DOD has not established mechanisms to sustain recent improvements in communication among community members.

Statute and DOD guidance assign responsibility for the accounting mission to many organizations and each reports through a different line of authority. Thus, no single entity is responsible for communitywide personnel and resources. This fragmented organizational structure has exacerbated weaknesses in leadership, and most community organizations GAO spoke to believe alternative structures would be more effective. A majority of community members GAO surveyed conveyed a lack of confidence about the organizational structure. For example, 12 out of 13 survey respondents ranked an option with a more centralized chain of command as the most effective in enabling the accounting community to achieve its mission. Until top-level leaders at USD Policy and PACOM can ensure that all mission activities are carried out with unity of effort, inefficient and potentially avoidable overlap, unexpected operational concerns, and disagreements among members could continue to hinder the mission.

Why GAO Did This Study

DOD reports that more than 83,000 persons are missing from past conflicts in Vietnam, Korea, the Cold War, the Persian Gulf, and World War II. Several DOD organizations, known as the accounting community, have a role in accounting for the missing. Between 2002 and 2012, DOD accounted for an average of 72 persons each year. In 2009, Congress mandated DOD to increase its capability and capacity such that the community could account for at least 200 missing persons annually by 2015. The law also added all World War II losses to the list of conflicts for which DOD was responsible, thus increasing from about 10,000 to 83,000 the number of missing persons for whom DOD must account. A committee report accompanying the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013 mandated GAO to review DOD's efforts to address the accounting-for goal. GAO assessed DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission. In doing so, GAO analyzed guidance and requirements, discussed accounting efforts and the structure of the community with community members, and surveyed accounting community members and related entities.

What GAO Recommends

GAO is making nine recommendations to DOD, including for example: examining options to reorganize; clarifying responsibilities for the accounting community; improving planning, guidance, and criteria to prioritize cases; and sustaining communication. DOD generally concurred with these recommendations.

For more information, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or farrellb@gao.gov.

Status Legend:

More Info
  • Review Pending-GAO has not yet assessed implementation status.
  • Open-Actions to satisfy the intent of the recommendation have not been taken or are being planned, or actions that partially satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-implemented-Actions that satisfy the intent of the recommendation have been taken.
  • Closed-not implemented-While the intent of the recommendation has not been satisfied, time or circumstances have rendered the recommendation invalid.
    • Review Pending
    • Open
    • Closed - implemented
    • Closed - not implemented

    Recommendations for Executive Action

    Recommendation: To enhance DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission, and to help unify the accounting community's fragmented organizational structure, the Secretary of Defense should examine options for reorganizing the accounting community, and as part of that examination, consider organizational options that provide a more centralized chain of command over the accounting community's mission.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission, and to clarify the specific roles and responsibilities of the accounting community members to help minimize unnecessary overlap and disagreement among community members, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy) to revise DOD Directive 2310.07E and finalize and issue the new related DOD instruction to supplement this directive. Clarification of roles and responsibilities should be made particularly with respect to the following four functions: equipment and artifact identification and analysis; research and analysis; investigations; and family outreach and external communications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission, and to clarify the specific roles and responsibilities of the accounting community members to help minimize unnecessary overlap and disagreement among community members, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Secretary of the Air Force and direct the Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, or the appropriate departmental entity in light of any reorganization, to negotiate a new memorandum of agreement between the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory and Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC). The memorandum should specify which conflicts' artifacts JPAC should send to the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory for analysis, the type of artifacts sent, and the priorities according to which the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory should analyze resolved cases.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission, and to more efficiently and effectively develop the capability and capacity to account for missing persons, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy), or the appropriate departmental entity in light of any reorganization, to finalize the community-wide plan to develop the increased capability and capacity required by statute, with the support and participation of all community members. The initiatives and resources of all members of the accounting community should be integrated within the community-wide plan, including changes in planned operations and in the extent to which disinterments will be performed.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission, and to more efficiently and effectively develop the capability and capacity to account for missing persons, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy), or the appropriate departmental entity in light of any reorganization, to establish criteria that can be used to prioritize missing persons cases to reflect feasibility of recovery, in order to better allocate resources and prioritize the department's efforts to account for missing persons.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission, and to more efficiently and effectively develop the capability and capacity to account for missing persons, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy), or the appropriate departmental entity in light of any reorganization, to establish a mechanism for community-wide communication to help sustain the positive gains that have recently been made with respect to communication.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission, and to more efficiently and effectively develop the capability and capacity to account for missing persons, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy), or the appropriate departmental entity in light of any reorganization, to formalize the communication procedures for the JPAC Central Identification Laboratory to provide the service casualty offices with advance notification of pending identifications, to better expedite families' notification of identifications.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission, and to more efficiently and effectively develop the capability and capacity to account for missing persons, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense (Policy), or the appropriate departmental entity in light of any reorganization, to ensure that the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), in coordination with all members of the accounting community, develop personnel files for all unaccounted for persons as required by statute, in order to help avoid potential overlap or unnecessary duplication of effort and to ensure better communication among community members with respect to missing persons cases.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

    Recommendation: To enhance DOD's capability and capacity to accomplish the missing persons accounting mission, and to help avert unexpected operational or diplomatic issues that might hinder missing persons operations, the Secretary of Defense should direct the Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, and Commander, Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, or the appropriate department entities in light of any reorganization, to develop memoranda of agreement or other appropriate mechanisms with the other combatant commands in whose area of responsibility JPAC is likely to operate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Defense

    Status: Open

    Comments: When we confirm what actions the agency has taken in response to this recommendation, we will provide updated information.

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