Over time, the obscure government bureaucracies in charge of the accounting task have largely managed to escape close public scrutiny despite clashing with a growing number of advocacy groups and individuals such as Frank Metersky, a Korean War veteran who has spent decades pressing for a more aggressive and effective U.S. effort.
The outlook for improvement at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command, he says, is not encouraging.
"Today it's worse than ever," he says.
People disagree on the extent of the problem. But even the current JPAC commander, Air Force Maj. Gen. Kelly K. McKeague, says he would not dispute those who say his organization is dysfunctional.
"I'd say you're right, and we're doing something about it," McKeague said in a telephone interview last week from his headquarters in Hawaii. He said changes, possibly to include consolidating the accounting bureaucracy and putting its management under the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Washington, are under consideration.
The internal report by Paul M. Cole was never meant to be made public. It is unsparing in its criticisms:
—In recent years the process by which JPAC gathers bones and other material useful for identifications has "collapsed" and is now "acutely dysfunctional."
—JPAC is finding too few investigative leads, resulting in too few collections of human remains to come even close to achieving Congress's demand for a minimum 200 identifications per year by 2015. Of the 80 identifications that JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory made in 2012, only 35 were derived from remains recovered by JPAC. Thirty-eight of the 80 were either handed over unilaterally by other governments or were disinterred from a U.S. military cemetery. Seven were from a combination of those sources.
—Some search teams are sent into the field, particularly in Europe, on what amount to boondoggles. No one is held to account for "a pattern of foreign travel, accommodations and activities paid for by public funds that are ultimately unnecessary, excessive, inefficient or unproductive." Some refer to this as "military tourism."
—JPAC lacks a comprehensive list of the people for whom it is searching. Its main database is incomplete and "riddled with unreliable data."
—"Sketch maps" used by the JPAC teams looking for remains on the battlefield are "chronically unreliable," leaving the teams "cartigraphically blind." Cole likened this to 19th century military field operations.
Absent prompt and significant change, "the descent from dysfunction to total failure ... is inevitable," Cole concluded.
He directed most of his criticism at the field operations that collect bones and other material, as opposed to the laboratory scientists at JPAC who use that material to identify the remains. Cole is a management consultant and recognized research expert in the field of accounting for war remains; he still works at JPAC.
More broadly, the government organizations responsible for the accounting mission, including the Pentagon's Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, which is in charge of policy, have sometimes complicated their task by making public statements that their critics view as disingenuous or erroneous.
The head of DPMO, for example, retired Army Maj. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, said last month at a public forum that the U.S. government has "no evidence" that U.S. servicemen taken prisoner in North Korea during the 1950-53 war were later moved to the former Soviet Union against their will and never returned.
Washington made a detailed case in writing to Moscow in 1993 that such transfers did happen, and the AP has obtained a videotape produced by U.S. officials and given to the Russians at the same time to support the U.S. case.
The tape, which has never before been made public, was provided to the AP by a former government official who was not authorized to release it. It says that based on interviews and other research, U.S. investigators believe "10s if not 100s" of American POWs were transferred to the territory of the former Soviet Union. In some cases they were moved to Russia through rail transfer points in China, the tape asserts.
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