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Hagel Seeks Better POW-MIA Tracking

Washington — In a bid to improve the government’s accounting for missing U.S. war dead, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Monday he is establishing a new Pentagon agency with more focused authority and innovative approaches.

“We’re streamlining everything,” Hagel told a news conference.

The Pentagon has been under congressional pressure for months to take decisive action to improve the POW-MIA accounting effort. Its failings were highlighted last summer when The Associated Press disclosed an internal Pentagon report that said the search for remains of missing soldiers on foreign battlefields was mismanaged, wasteful and acutely dysfunctional.

After lengthy study, Hagel decided to combine the functions of the two leading agencies in this field — the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, based in Hawaii, and the Defense POW-MIA Office, based in the Pentagon. Those two organizations will disappear; the new agency will be directed by a civilian official not yet named.

Michael D. Lumpkin, who is masterminding the reorganization in his temporary role as acting undersecretary of defense for policy, told reporters Monday that it will take some additional weeks to implement the plan.

“We need to break away from the way of traditionally doing business that is perceived by some to be outdated, institutionalized thinking and a behavior that didn’t deliver the number of remains accounted for that we had hoped,” Lumpkin said.

The Congress in 2009 set a requirement that the Pentagon identify at least 200 sets of remains a year by 2015 -- a number it has not come close to achieving in recent years. Lumpkin said he thinks the 200 figure is attainable with a budget that he said would remain near recent levels of about $100 million a year.

Last year 60 sets of remains were identified. The head of the Joint POW-MIA Accounting Command, Maj. Gen. Kelly McKeague, told Congress last August that a realistic goal is 125 identifications per year by 2018.

The Pentagon works MIA cases year-round. It lists 83,000 as unaccounted for from World War II, the Korean War and from Vietnam, although a large percentage of those — including remains lost at sea —are believed not to be recoverable.

“There’s not a more poignant, emotional, important issue in our society today,” Hagel told reporters, “... than you take care of the people who gave their lives to this country, and you take care of their families. And that has been a critical component of who we are as Americans from the beginning of this republic.”

The issue also is among the most divisive and controversial problems facing the Pentagon.

The Pentagon’s inspector general is conducting a noncriminal investigation of potential fraud, waste and abuse of resources by the accounting agencies.

Hagel said all communications with family members of the missing from past conflicts will be managed and organized by this new agency.