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.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In July 2013 we issued GAO-13-619 report in which we found that the Department of Defense POW/MIA accounting community had a fragmented organizational structure and recommended that the Secretary of Defense should examine options to reorganize the community and as part of this examination consider option that provided a more centralized chain of command for the mission. On August 23, 2013, as a result our recommendations, the Deputy Secretary of Defense issued a memo to the Director of Cost of Assessment and Program Evaluation (CAPE) to lead a review of the accounting community that would include recommendations for alternative structures and processes to conduct the accounting mission effectively and provide the results of the review no later than the end of calendar year 2013. On February 20, 2014, The Secretary of Defense directed the Under Secretary of Defense to provide him within 30 days a plan for how to organize the department most effectively to achieve the accounting mission. On March 28, 2014 issued the Final Report titled the Organizational Structure Review of the Personnel Accounting Community. The study included an assessment of the pros and cons of multiple organizational options,including the unifying of the two primary community organizations--the Defense POW/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) and the Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Accounting Command (JPAC). In the same month the Secretary of Defense announced that based on the findings and recommendations in the study and recommendations of past reviews, directed the Department to undertake a number of actions to reorganize the accounting mission into a single accountable organization that has completed oversight of personnel accounting resources, research and operations. These actions are responsive to our recommendation and we are therefore closing this recommendation as being implemented.

    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

  2. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) has issued several guidance documents that, combined, meet the intent of our recommendation. In January 2017, DOD issued a directive that broadly establishes the responsibilities, functions, and relationships of some accounting community members. DOD Directive 5110.10, Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA). In April 2017, DOD issued another directive that provides additional information about the responsibilities of some members of the accounting community. DOD Directive 2310.07, Past Conflict Personnel Accounting Policy. DPAA officials said that DPAA is now working on developing the DOD instruction that will establish specific procedures, roles, and responsibilities for the program, stating that the instruction is in draft now, being coordinated internally within DPAA, and they do not have an estimated issuance date yet. However, until issuance of the instruction, DPAA has issued terms of reference that define the specific roles and responsibilities for each directorate within DPAA. Our review of the terms of reference show that this document defines the roles and responsibilities for research and analysis and for investigations in a manner that addresses the concerns identified in our report. With regard to equipment and artifact identification and analysis, the DPAA laboratories have updated their standard operating procedures to specify the format and procedures for writing life science equipment material evidence reports, which should address the concerns identified in our report related to the length and utility of these reports prepared by one of the laboratories. In addition, a DPAA official told us that DPAA is rethinking how different laboratory functions should be performed and where those capabilities should reside, and that a decision about the future course of action would likely be made in fiscal year 2018. We will continue to track DPAA?s progress on this decision with our recommendation about developing a memorandum of agreement. Finally, with regard to family outreach and external communications, the DPAA terms of reference establish responsibilities for various outreach functions, such as family and public outreach. In addition, the DPAA operational plan has a communications line of effort that includes several initiatives intended to integrate and synchronize DPAA?s efforts. For example, the operation plan calls for the development of a Strategic Communication Plan in fiscal years 2017-2018, that is to include a consistent approach to DPAA internal communications and plans to align public messages. By implementing our recommendation, the accounting community is better positioned to eliminate its areas of inefficient overlap and resolve disagreements among community members.

    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

  3. Status: Open

    Comments: Officials from the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) stated that the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory (LSEL) and the former JPAC Central Identification Laboratory (CIL) have both been absorbed into DPAA, so there is no need for a separate memorandum between the two entities. We believe that DPAA should take actions that would meet the intent of our recommendation by delineating the roles and responsibilities within DPAA of the former LSEL and CIL laboratories. As of September 2017, DPAA has taken some actions to clarify which conflicts and types of artifacts the different laboratories are responsible for working on. For example, according to DPAA officials, DPAA has made progress in bringing the former LSEL up to the standard of the other DPAA laboratories by developing an evidence control system and a formal inventory. In addition, the DPAA laboratories have updated their standard operating procedures to specify the format and procedures for writing life science equipment material evidence reports, which should address the concerns identified in our report related to the length and utility of these reports prepared by one of the laboratories. However, a DPAA official stated that DPAA is rethinking how different laboratory functions should be performed and where those capabilities should reside, and that a decision about the future course of action would likely be made in fiscal year 2018. Until the responsibilities of the different DPAA laboratories are clarified with regard to which conflicts and types of artifacts the different laboratories are responsible for working on, the potential for inefficient and ineffective interactions between the different laboratories that we identified in our 2013 report may continue.

    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

  4. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The recommendation to finalize the community-wide plan has been implemented. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) has developed several documents that combined meet the intent of our recommendation. In October 2015, DPAA issued a "DPAA Strategic Initiatives and Approach" document, which DPAA officials said was an overarching vision document for the new DPAA organization. In 2016, DPAA then issued its global campaign plan, which is a 5 year plan about how DPAA would conduct its operations. The global campaign includes specifics on how DPAA will move forward with various lines of efforts, such as accounting operations, communications, synchronization, and mission support. The global campaign plan is then further elaborated on by the DPAA 2-year operational plan for fiscal years 2017-2018. The 2-year operational plan provides detailed planning for operations, among all four lines of efforts from the campaign plan. Our review of the operational plan shows that it appears to reflect the initiatives and resources of all members of the accounting community. DPAA officials said that the development of the operational plan includes external coordination and communication with family groups, veterans groups, OSD, the military services, cemeteries; all organizations involved in the past conflicts accounting mission are included in the development of the operational plans. The operation plan also discussed disinterments as part of the effort to increase capacity, while also recognizing the need to build their capacity for more field operations. By implementing our recommendation, the accounting community is better positioned to justify the resources it needs to increase DOD's capability and capacity to account for missing persons.

    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

  5. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: On April 12, 2017, DOD issued a Directive that establishes four categories for analytical historical research and field investigation priorities. DOD Directive 2310.07, Past Conflict Personnel Accounting Policy (April 12, 2017). The relevant section of the directive formalizes a memorandum issued in April 2015 that first established these four categories and directed all case files of unaccounted for personnel to be placed in one of these categories. The establishment of these categories has enabled the Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) to narrow its scope of work from the entire universe of about 83,000 missing persons to a more manageable number of cases that are potentially recoverable. Specifically, DPAA's global campaign plan shows how many of the 83,000 missing persons cases are in each category, and further breaks the potentially recoverable cases into potential recoveries from field missions and from disinterments. By implementing our recommendation, the accounting community is better positioned to plan and prioritize its efforts to account for missing persons.

    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

  6. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) Operation Plan for fiscal years 2017-2018 establishes communication as one of four lines of effort. Under the communication line of effort, the operation plan calls for the development and implementation of a strategic communication plan in fiscal years 2017-2018, and specifies key elements of this plan, which include a proactive communication schedule, and a consistent approach to DPAA internal communications. In addition, the operation plans directs that outreach and communications staff are to be integrated into all planning of key operations. Moreover, DPAA's 5-year global campaign plan for fiscal years 2017-2022 provides for quarterly meetings of accounting community members, and DPAA officials told us that the accounting community meeting has continued to hold its annual meeting attended by all community members and quarterly videoteleconferences, even as DPAA has undergone leadership changes. In addition, DPAA officials said that they have quarterly phone conversations with DPAA senior leadership and veterans and family groups. Further, DPAA has planned a web-based public portal with case-specific information on missing personnel that families will be able to access; the officials stated that they expected this portal to be operational in late 2017. By implementing our recommendation, the accounting community is better positioned to work across agency boundaries and prevent misunderstandings.

    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

  7. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) has taken actions to formalize the communication procedures between its laboratories and the service casualty offices. The DPAA global campaign plan calls for engagement no less than quarterly with DOD partners, which would include the service casualty offices. In addition, the updated DPAA laboratory standard operating procedures note responsibility for sending monthly updates to the service casualty offices. As a result, the DPAA laboratory now provides a monthly memorandum to the service casualty offices in each of the military services with information about potential candidates for identification within the next 30-90 days. The memoranda also highlight those cases nearing completion, which can help the casualty offices prioritize their efforts. By implementing our recommendation, the service casualty offices will be better positioned to expedite families? notification when an identification is made.

    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

  8. Status: Open

    Comments: As of September 2017, this recommendation has not been implemented and remains open. The Defense POW/MIA Accounting Agency (DPAA) is taking actions to develop case files for all persons who are unaccounted for. As of May 2017, DPAA officials said that DPAA had completed the case files for all individuals from the Vietnam War; about 80 percent of the files for individuals from the Korean War; and about 60 percent of the files for individuals from World War II. The officials said that DPAA has an ongoing effort to develop a case management system and scanning project that will serve as the basis for the required personnel or case files, but they have faced funding challenges that have hindered their ability to finish this project. They said that if DPAA can get the necessary funding, they will be able to complete development of all of the files in about 2 years. They said that with a lower level of funding, it will take more time than that 2 year estimate, and potentially could cost more money over time. Until personnel files for all unaccounted-for missing persons are developed and made readily accessible, as required by law, the community?s efforts to collaborate on cases will be hindered by a lack of information visibility among community members.

    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

  9. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: In our July 2013 report we found that the Department of Defense's Joint Prisoners of War, Missing in Action (POW/MIA) Accounting Command (JPAC) had negotiated an agreement with European Command governing JPAC's operations in Europe, but had not established agreements or other appropriate mechanisms with the other combatant commands to conduct operations outside of United States Pacific Command (PACOM's) area of responsibility. In On January 16, 2016, as a result of our recommendation, the office of the United States Joint Chief of Staff issued an executive order to all combatant commands including PACOM that included a provision which delineates the functions and responsibilities of the combatant commands in support of the DOD's worldwide personnel accounting mission and the supporting relationships when the mission occurs in the combatant command's area of responsibility. The intent of the executive order is to ensure that each combatant command understands its role in supporting the accounting mission. These actions are responsive to our recommendation and we are therefore closing this recommendation as being implemented.

    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

 

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