Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is “comfortable” with how the Air Force has managed fallout from scandals involving body parts at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary and believes senior leaders have been “forthcoming” about problems there, Pentagon spokesmen said Thursday.
Panetta also supports the Air Force’s decision not to notify relatives of 274 fallen service members that their partial incinerated remains were secretly dumped in a Virginia landfill, Navy Capt. John Kirby, a Pentagon spokesman, told reporters.
“The secretary is comfortable with the way the Air Force has handled this,” Kirby told reporters at a news conference.
Kirby said there were “real constraints” that restrict the Air Force from notifying relatives of the dead troops. Air Force officials said each of the families signed forms stipulating that they did not wish to be notified if additional remains were subsequently recovered or identified.
The forms authorized the military to dispose of those remains in an “appropriate manner,” but the families were never told that the remains would be cremated, incinerated and dumped in a landfill.
Last month, Panetta ordered a review of operations at the Dover mortuary after investigations by the Air Force Inspector General and the Office of Special Counsel, a federal agency that handles whistleblower complaints, documented cases of missing body parts and “gross mismanagement.”
Air Force officials meted out discipline to three mortuary supervisors as a result of the investigation, but did not fire anyone. Panetta has since directed Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to review the case again to determine if tougher punishment is warranted.
George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said at the same news conference that Panetta was “aware” of The Post’s report disclosing that the Air Force disposed of far more remains in the landfill than previously acknowledged, but did not comment directly on Panetta’s reaction.
“He is committed obviously to the principle that our fallen heroes and their families deserve the very best in how they are treated,” Little said. “The secretary feels that the Air Force has been forthcoming with information related to Dover.”
Joe Davis, the national spokesman for Veterans of Foreign Wars, said the latest reports suggest the military hasn’t been transparent enough. By contrast, he argued, the Defense Department was relatively forthcoming about mismanagement at Arlington National Cemetery after initial reports that remains had been mishandled there.
In the case of the Dover scandal, he said, the investigation hasn’t moved fast enough, and there are fears that more worrisome findings could yet still emerge.
Said Davis: “Here, you continue to pull back the layers of the onion and there’s still an onion there.”