Congressional panel investigates Dover Air Force Base mortuary

November 28, 2011

A congressional investigative committee disclosed Monday that it has begun a wide-ranging probe into operations at the Dover Air Force Base mortuary, escalating public scrutiny of the military installation charged with handling America’s war dead .

The House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform told Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta in a letter Monday that it would examine any allegations of “mismanagement, dishonesty and misconduct” at Dover over the past decade — a more extensive review than other recent investigations into the mortuary.

The Air Force inspector general reported this month that it had found evidence of “gross mismanagement” at the mortuary after whistleblowers cited cases of missing body parts and poor recordkeeping.

The Air Force probe was prompted by the Office of Special Counsel, an independent federal agency that handles whistleblower complaints. But that investigation was limited to a handful of incidents from 2009 and early 2010.

The House Oversight Committee announced that it would investigate all allegations of the mishandling of troops’ remains dating to Jan. 1, 2002, shortly after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. The Dover mortuary has handled the remains of more than 6,300 service members killed overseas since then.

The committee is a principal investigative arm of the House of Representatives. The letter to Panetta was signed by the panel’s chairman, Rep. Darrell E. Issa (R-Calif.), as well as its top Democrat, Rep. Elijah E. Cummings (Md.).

The Air Force announced Nov. 8 that it had disciplined — but not fired — three supervisors at the mortuary in response to the findings of gross mismanagement. In response to criticism from lawmakers and veterans groups, Panetta later asked Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to reconsider whether the punishment was too lenient. That review is pending.

Although Air Force officials said they were confident they had fixed problems at the mortuary, Panetta also appointed a panel of public health experts to examine current operations at Dover and report back to him in 60 days.

The leader of that panel is retired Army Gen. John P. Abizaid, the former head of the U.S. Central Command.

The Defense Department “takes very seriously the need to look into the lapses that occurred at Dover Port Mortuary,” George Little, the Pentagon press secretary, said Monday. “That’s why the secretary has appointed an outside board of experts to look into procedures at Dover, and we will continue to work with Congress as it looks into this matter. Dover is sacred military ground, and our fallen heroes deserve the highest respect.”

Other lawmakers have questioned whether the Air Force’s internal investigation was adequate, citing a Washington Post report that said the Dover mortuary had disposed of cremated portions of troops’ remains in a Virginia landfill.

The Air Force said it ended that practice in 2008, but it was not a focus of the investigations by the Air Force inspector general or the Office of Special Counsel. Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.) said he has been pressing the Defense Department for months for details on the landfill dumping, but to no avail.

Craig Whitlock covers the Pentagon and national security. He has reported for The Washington Post since 1998.
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