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Defense > 5. POW/MIA Mission

The Department of Defense should minimize overlapping and duplicative efforts by examining options to reduce fragmentation and clarify guidance on roles and responsibilities among the eight organizations that account for missing persons and improve the effectiveness of the mission.

Why This Area Is Important

The Department of Defense (DOD) reports that more than 83,000 persons remain missing from past conflicts in World War II, Korea, Vietnam, the Cold War, and the Persian Gulf. Since the early 1970s, DOD has accounted for approximately 1,910 persons, and it identified an average of 72 persons annually in the decade ending 2012. DOD policy calls for the department to implement timely and effective policy and procedures to enhance personnel accounting operations, determine and accurately report the status of those who are unaccounted for, and provide current information to appropriate family members.[1]

The missing persons accounting community within DOD includes eight organizations that report through different lines of authority.[2] Two key organizations are the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO), whose Director reports to the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy; and the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC), which reports to the Commander of the U.S. Pacific Command (PACOM). Other organizations in the community include the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, which is part of an organization reporting to the Army Surgeon General; the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory, which is part of the Air Force; and the four service casualty offices.

These organizations collectively obligated about $132 million for this mission in fiscal year 2012. DOD has programmed additional funds from fiscal  years 2012 through 2016 in order to meet the congressionally mandated goal to provide funds, personnel, and resources to increase significantly the capability and capacity to account for missing persons, so that the accounting community has sufficient resources to ensure that at least 200 missing persons are accounted for annually by fiscal year 2015.

[1]DOD Directive 2310.07E, Personnel Accounting—Losses Due to Hostile Acts (Nov. 10, 2003, certified current as of Aug. 21, 2007).

[2]Section 1509 of Title 10 of the United States Code defines the organizations in DOD’s Prisoner of War/Missing in Action accounting community. These organizations are: the Defense Prisoners of War/Missing in Action Office, the Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command, the Armed Forces DNA Identification Laboratory, Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory, and the casualty and mortuary affairs offices of the military departments, including the Army service casualty office, the Navy service casualty office, and the Air Force service casualty office. The statute also provides that other elements meeting certain criteria are also included in the accounting community, and other organizations, such as the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Intelligence and the State Department, that are not officially part of the accounting community also have roles and responsibilities in this area.

What GAO Found

In a July 2013 report, GAO found that the missing persons accounting community is at risk of performing overlapping and duplicative efforts due to a lack of clarity in its members’ roles and responsibilities and a fragmented organizational structure, which have impeded efforts to establish clear plans to meet the community’s mission.

The roles and responsibilities of the various members of the missing persons accounting community are not clearly articulated in existing DOD directives or instructions. GAO’s prior work has shown the need for collaborating agencies to work together to define and agree on their roles and responsibilities.[1] It has also shownthat overarching plans can help agencies better align their activities, processes, and resources to collaborate effectively to accomplish a commonly defined outcome.[2] Disagreements over roles and responsibilities where the guidance is broad or vague enough to support different interpretations have led to discord, lack of collaboration, and friction among the community’s members, particularly between DPMO and JPAC. Moreover, discord among these organizations has impeded DOD’s ability to establish a community-wide plan for achieving the mandated goal of providing funds, personnel, and other resources to increase capability and capacity to account for 200 missing persons a year by 2015.  Further, a fragmented organizational structure exacerbates these weaknesses. In part, because the missing persons mission cuts across many operational and functional boundaries within DOD, no single entity currently has overarching responsibility for community-wide personnel and resources. As a result, potentially overlapping and duplicative efforts among accounting community members exist in the following four key areas: (1) equipment and artifact identification and analysis; (2) research and analysis; (3) investigations; and (4) family outreach and external communications.

Equipment and Artifact Identification and Analysis

Both JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory and the Air Force Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory have the ability to analyze life support equipment and both employ staff members who have responsibilities for equipment and artifact identification and analysis.[3] JPAC and the Air Force Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory disagree about the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory’s roles and responsibilities for equipment and artifact identification and analysis, and relevant DOD and Pacific Command guidance does not specify or differentiate the roles and responsibilities for the two labs in this area.[4] A memorandum of agreement governing work between JPAC and the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory was negotiated in 2004, but this agreement does not establish clear roles and responsibilities.

As a result of this lack of clarity, the interactions between JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory and the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory have been inefficient.  For example, GAO found in July 2013 that about half of the cases that JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory sent to the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory for analysis in 2011 and 2012 had already been resolved. JPAC officials stated that the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory’s current operational support serves as unnecessary overlap, and that JPAC’s life support investigators are able to produce reports that are adequate to support an identification. In contrast, Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory officials stated that their capabilities are complementary to those of JPAC, and they noted that JPAC’s field analysis reports do not have the same level of detail as their own laboratory analyses. Until DOD guidance is revised to more clearly define JPAC’s and the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory’s responsibilities, these interactions between the two organizations may not fully utilize each organization’s capability and capacity to achieve the mission.

Research and Analysis

DPMO’s research and analytical capabilities to perform research and analysis of missing persons overlap with the capabilities of JPAC, and DOD guidance is unclear regarding the responsibilities of the two organizations. DOD Directive 2310.07E states that the responsibilities of the Director of DPMO include overseeing archival research; standardizing procedures for methodology and prioritization; conducting national and international archival research; and coordinating with JPAC, which also conducts archival research, to improve efficiency and prevent duplication of effort. However, neither the directive nor the October 2003 PACOM transition plan that established JPAC clearly delineates JPAC’s responsibilities with regard to research.

DPMO and JPAC officials both told GAO that the absence of defined responsibilities in the areas of research and analysis has been a source of disagreements between the two organizations, slowing progress in this area and not using resources in an efficient manner. Until DOD clarifies and differentiates between DPMO’s and JPAC’s respective research and analysis responsibilities, the two organizations will continue to have overlapping capabilities and functions, and disagreements are likely to continue, thus potentially diminishing DOD’s missing persons capabilities.


DPMO’s and JPAC’s responsibilities to perform investigations overlap, and DOD guidance is unclear with respect to defining investigation responsibilities for these two organizations.[5] For example, both DPMO and JPAC conduct investigations for missing persons from World War II in Europe and have asserted operational responsibilities for performing these investigations. Although DPMO and JPAC officials told GAO that the disagreement between DPMO and JPAC regarding investigation responsibilities had been resolved, and that DPMO will be conducting investigations for World War II cases outside of PACOM’s area of responsibility, this resolution has not yet been documented. Until DOD clarifies and differentiates between DPMO’s and JPAC’s respective investigation responsibilities and documents this clarification, the two organizations will continue to have overlapping functions, and disagreements may continue, thus impeding efforts to perform investigations.

Family Outreach and External Communications

DPMO and JPAC have overlapping responsibilities for family outreach and external communication. DOD provides some limited guidance regarding family outreach and external communication roles and responsibilities for DPMO and the service casualty offices, but provides no guidance on JPAC’s roles and responsibilities in this area.[6] To carry out its family outreach and external communication responsibilities, DPMO organizes periodic updates and annual government briefings to keep family members informed. JPAC’s 2010 annual report notes that JPAC conducts some family outreach activities by hosting numerous private tours for family members and providing operational briefings at nine family update events. Service casualty office officials told GAO that their offices serve as the primary liaison for families. They coordinate the briefings for the families concerning case status and developments through the regularly scheduled updates and annual government briefings organized by DPMO, as well as notify family members when an identification is made. None of the family organizations with which GAO spoke raised concerns about DOD’s having several organizations involved with family outreach and external communications. However, according to DOD officials, without clear guidance regarding the roles and responsibilities for each organization, there is potential for inconsistent communication of information to family members and external parties.

Community-wide Planning

The accounting community’s initial response to 2009 direction from the Deputy Secretary of Defense to build the capability and capacity to account for 200 persons a year by 2015 was characterized by disputes and lack of coordination, and was illustrated by the development of competing proposed plans by DPMO and JPAC. Since then, the accounting community has begun drafting a community-wide plan to meet the accounting-for goal, but as of February 2014 this plan had not been completed, due in part to disputes among community members. According to both DPMO and JPAC officials, the areas of disagreement are primarily between JPAC and DPMO and included topics such as the division of research and analysis responsibilities between DPMO and JPAC, determination of the appropriate levels of effort for each of the various conflicts, and agreement on a policy to address lower priority cases that have been on JPAC’s list of potential recovery sites for a long time. Without a community-wide plan, members have had varied success in building the capability and capacity to meet the 200 persons goal by 2015.

Fragmented Organizational Structure

The accounting community has a fragmented organizational structure, with each accounting community organization reporting under a different line of authority, and this structure exacerbates weaknesses in the program. GAO reported in July 2013 that, based on a questionnaire administered by GAO to representatives from each DOD accounting community organization, a majority of accounting community and DOD stakeholder organizations believed that an alternative organizational structure for the accounting community would be more effective than the present structure. For example, GAO found that 12 of the 13 survey respondents who answered the question ranked an option with a more centralized chain of command as the most effective of possible options in enabling the accounting community to achieve its mission.

[1]GAO, Managing for Results: Key Considerations for Implementing Interagency Collaborative Mechanisms, GAO‑12‑1022 (Washington, D.C.: Sept. 27, 2012).

[2]GAO, Interagency Collaboration: Key Issues for Congressional Oversight of National Security Strategies, Organizations, Workforce, and Information Sharing, GAO‑09‑904SP (Washington D.C.: Sept. 25, 2009).

[3]The Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory works with equipment that may be associated with a specific servicemember, such as pieces of uniforms and parachutes, and remnants from airplane ejection seats. The analysis of this equipment is particularly important when there is no biological material from which to make an identification.

[4]DOD Directive 2310.07E, Personnel Accounting—Losses Due to Hostile Acts (Nov. 10, 2003, certified current as of Aug. 21, 2007)and U.S. Pacific Command, Permanent Order 03-01, Joint Prisoner of War (POW)/Missing in Action (MIA) Accounting Command  (Oct. 1, 2003). This order provided guidance to establish JPAC by merging the Joint Task Force-Full Accounting and the United States Army Central Identification Laboratory Hawaii.

[5]DOD Directive 2310.07E states that the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Affairs—a position that is held by the Director of DPMO—shall exercise policy, control, and oversight within DOD for the entire process of accounting for missing persons, but it does not mention what role, if any, DPMO should play in performing investigations. Further, the directive does not describe JPAC’s investigation responsibilities. In addition, JPAC’s 2013 operational plan states that JPAC conducts worldwide investigation, recovery, and laboratory operations to identify missing personnel from past conflicts in order to support DOD’s personnel accounting mission, and that JPAC’s functions include field investigations.

[6]DOD Directive 5110.10, Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) (Sept. 21, 2005).  DOD Instruction 1300.18, DOD Personnel Casualty Matters, Policies, and Procedures (Jan. 8, 2008, incorporating change Aug. 14, 2009).

Actions Needed

To help minimize unnecessary overlap and disagreement within the missing persons accounting community, in July 2013 GAO recommended that the Secretary of Defense take the following four actions:

  • Direct the Secretary of the Air Force and direct the Commander, U.S. Pacific Command, to negotiate a new memorandum of agreement between the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory and JPAC. The memorandum should specify which conflicts’ artifacts JPAC should send to the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory for analysis, the type of artifacts to be sent, and the priorities according to which the Life Sciences Equipment Laboratory should analyze resolved cases.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Examine options for reorganizing the accounting community, and as part of that examination, consider alternative organizational options that would help unify the community’s fragmented organizational structure and provide a more centralized chain of command.

The precise potential financial benefits of implementing these actions are not clear because determining them would require DOD to have already examined options for alternative organizations, which we recommended as a needed step toward minimizing unnecessary overlap and duplication. However, taking these actions will aid DOD’s efforts to meet itscongressionally mandated goalof significantly increasing the capability and capacity to account for missing persons.

How GAO Conducted Its Work

The information contained in this analysis is based on findings from the July 2013 report listed in the related GAO products section. GAO analyzed relevant statutes and DOD directives, instructions, memorandums of agreement, standard operating procedures, and other guidance and documentation to identify potential areas of duplication, unnecessary overlap, or fragmentation among the activities of the accounting community members. GAO interviewed officials from all of the missing persons accounting community organizations, as well as officials from top-level leadership offices and other stakeholder organizations, to discuss the areas where roles and responsibilities were vague or overlapping and discussed potential benefits and drawbacks of the lack of clarity in roles and responsibilities and associated areas of overlapping responsibilities for DOD’s missing persons accounting mission. In addition, GAO administered a questionnaire to the universe of 17 accounting community member organizations and several DOD stakeholder organizations identified within the scope of this engagement regarding their views on alternative options for organizing the accounting community. We received a total of 14 responses out of the 17 questionnaires distributed, and followed up with all of the nonrespondents. The Defense Intelligence Agency and DOD’s Office of Cost Assessment and Program Evaluation did not provide responses to our questionnaire. In addition, JPAC officials told us that their response reflected input from JPAC’s Central Identification Laboratory. All of the accounting community organizations submitted survey responses. We qualitatively analyzed the open-ended responses and quantitatively analyzed the closed-ended responses from the questionnaires to identify trends in responses and gain insight into the accounting community organizations’ and DOD stakeholders’ views on the issues identified in the questionnaire.

Table 4 in appendix IV lists the agency responsibilities among the missing persons accounting community GAO identified that might have similar or overlapping objectives, provide similar services, or be fragmented across government missions. Overlap and fragmentation might not necessarily lead to actual duplication, and some degree of overlap and duplication may be justified.

Agency Comments & GAO Contact

In written comments to GAO’s July 2013 report, DOD largely concurred with GAO’s recommendations. In addition, in December 2013, the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 required the Secretary of Defense to consider our recommendations in preparing a report to Congress on the organizational structure of the POW/MIA accounting community by June 2014. According to DOD, on February 20, 2014, the Secretary of Defense directed the Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Policy to provide him a plan within 30 days that would clarify changes needed to consolidate relevant department assets into a single organization with oversight and accountability for the entire mission of accounting for missing personnel. In addition the Secretary directed that the plan propose ways to increase the number of identifications, improve transparency for families, and expand a case file system for missing personnel. If completed, these actions will enable DOD to address some of the issues of overlap that were raised in the GAO report.

GAO provided a draft of this report section to the Department of Defense for review and comment. DOD provided technical comments and GAO incorporated them as appropriate.

For additional information about this areas, contact Brenda S. Farrell at (202) 512-3604 or

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