DOD's POW/MIA report


Capability and Capacity to Account for Missing Persons Undermined by Leadership Weaknesses and Fragmented Organizational Structure

GAO-13-810T: Published: Aug 1, 2013. Publicly Released: Aug 1, 2013.


What GAO Found

The department's response to the accounting-for goal established in the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010 brought into sharp relief longstanding disputes that have not been addressed by top-level leaders, and have been exacerbated by the accounting community's fragmented organizational structure. Leadership from the Under Secretary of Defense for Policy and Pacific Command have been unable to resolve disputes between community members in areas such as roles and responsibilities and developing a community-wide plan to meet the statutory accounting-for goal. Further, the accounting community is fragmented in that the community members belong to diverse parent organizations under several different chains of command. With accounting community organizations reporting under different lines of authority, no single entity has overarching responsibility for community-wide personnel and other resources.

While the Department of Defense (DOD) is working to revise its existing guidance and develop new guidance, the roles and responsibilities of the various members of the missing persons accounting community are not all clearly articulated in existing DOD directives or instructions. GAO has previously reported on the need for collaborating agencies to work together to define and agree on their roles and responsibilities. DOD has established several directives and instructions related to the missing persons accounting program. However, none of this guidance clearly delineates the specific roles and responsibilities of all the organizations comprising the missing persons accounting community in the four key areas that GAO examined for the July 2013 report: (1) equipment and artifact identification and analysis, (2) research and analysis, (3) investigations, and (4) family outreach and external communications. Disagreements over roles and responsibilities where the guidance is broad or vague enough to support different interpretations has led to discord, lack of collaboration, and friction among the community's members, and particularly between the Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office (DPMO) and Joint Prisoner of War/Missing in Action Accounting Command (JPAC).

While DOD has made some progress in drafting a community-wide plan to increase its capability and capacity to meet the statutory accounting-for goal, as of June 2013 DOD had not completed a community-wide plan. GAO has previously reported that overarching plans can help agencies better align their activities, processes, and resources to collaborate effectively to accomplish a commonly defined outcome. However, GAO's July 2013 report found that community-wide planning to meet the accounting-for goal established by Congress has been impeded by disputes and by a lack of coordination among members of the missing persons accounting community, with the DPMO and JPAC developing two competing proposed plans, neither of which encompassed the entire accounting community.

Why GAO Did This Study

This testimony discusses GAO's findings and recommendations about DOD's missing persons accounting mission from our recently issued report, DOD's POW/MIA Mission: Top-Level Leadership Attention Needed to Resolve Longstanding Challenges in Accounting for Missing Persons from Past Conflicts. 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. Since the early 1970s, DOD has identified the remains of and accounted for approximately 1,910 persons. Several DOD components and organizations, collectively known as the missing persons accounting community, have a role in accounting for missing persons. Between 2002 and 2012, DOD accounted for an average of 72 persons each year. In 2009, Congress established an accounting-for goal in Section 541 of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2010. This act required the Secretary of Defense to provide such funds, personnel, and resources as the Secretary considers appropriate to increase significantly the capability and capacity of DOD, the Armed Forces, and commanders of the combatant commands 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, beginning in fiscal year 2015.The law also added all World War II losses to the list of conflicts for which DOD is responsible, thus increasing from about 10,000 to 83,000 the number of missing persons for whom DOD must account.

In 2012, in a committee report to accompany a bill for the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2013, the House Armed Services Committee mandated that GAO review DOD’s efforts to increase its capability and capacity to account for missing persons. GAO will focus on three key issues identified in the report, specifically: (1) the accounting community’s organizational structure, (2) the lack of clarity regarding community members’ roles and responsibilities, and (3) DOD’s planning to meet the statutory accounting-for goal.

For future questions about this statement, please contact Brenda S. Farrell, Director, Defense Capabilities and Management, at (202) 512-3604 or