Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel announced the creation of a new defense agency charged with merging the multiple divisions currently responsible for finding and identifying the more than 80,000 members missing from past conflicts. A five-month investigation by NPR and the independent news agency ProPublica had found the U.S. recovery effort to be slow, inefficient and stymied by outdated methods.
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel is overhauling of the Pentagon's so-called accounting community. Those are the agencies in charge of finding, identifying, and returning the remains of servicemen and women lost in past wars. Right now, the number of those missing stands at 83,000. NPR's Kelly McEvers spent five months investigating these agencies with the independent news organization ProPublica. She found the agencies to be slow and inefficient. And Kelly McEvers joins us now to talk about it. Hi.
KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: Hi.
SIEGEL: Does this new reorganization tackle the problems that you addressed in your reporting?
MCEVERS: So far, it's looking like it does. You know, one thing we found were a lot of layers of bureaucracy. I remember seeing months and months of memos back and forth from one agency to another, basically memos about memos. And what Hagel said is the effort will now be streamlined into one place and led by one leader rather than spread out among myriad different agencies across the country.
SIEGEL: One of the most notable things your investigation found had to do with the use of DNA. You reported that the agencies seemed reluctant to use it as the lead identification tool. Will that change?
MCEVERS: Well, what we found is that these agencies now use a process aimed not at just identifying the remains of a serviceman who died in a past war, but actually returning, shall we say, as much of that serviceman as possible. So that means it's a system where you measure bones and you compare dental records to narrow down who you think that person is and then you use DNA to verify your assumption.
The so-called DNA-led method that's now used by, you know, missing persons labs around the world - the 9/11 cases, Bosnia, Argentina - that's a system where you build a database of the family's DNA. So you say, to all you Americans who have missing soldiers out there, we want your DNA. Then you test the remains of the serviceman you have and you match it against this family database and you find matches.
So today, I asked Assistant Secretary of Defense Michael Lumpkin, who's spearheading this Pentagon effort, if the DNA-led system is a system they're looking to emulate, and he said, simply, yes.
SIEGEL: Now the agencies have also had an aversion to exhuming the remains of unknown soldiers and testing them for DNA. Might that change as well?
MCEVERS: It's looking like it might as well. You know, there are nearly 10,000 of these so-called unknown soldiers buried all over the world, in U.S. cemeteries in Europe and Asia. The thinking is that these graves could be respectfully exhumed. Their DNA could be tested against that family sample and many of these servicemen could be identified. I asked Lumpkin if this was something they were considering doing and, again, he said yes.
SIEGEL: Now, Secretary Hagel also talked about outsourcing some of this work. How would that happen?
MCEVERS: You know, Robert, there are a lot of people out there who are still looking for their lost relatives. We're talking about tens of thousands of families who still don't have answers. Many of them are second and third-generation relatives of servicemen who died as far back as World War II. These people have gotten really good at searching for crash sites, doing genealogy.
So, Lumpkin said the government would do much better if it actually worked with these people rather than keeping them out of the process, as it has in the past. But there's also a sense that some of this DNA work we're talking about could be farmed out, too, to the universities and the missing persons labs who already have the expertise to do it.
SIEGEL: And what would that mean for the existing agencies?
MCEVERS: Well, I mean, Lumpkin said nobody is really going to get fired just yet, but he did say this is a fundamental change. The agencies, as we knew them, will cease to exist. So, I mean, it is just the beginning of the process. I think we're going to know more about it in the coming weeks.
SIEGEL: OK. Kelly, thank you.
MCEVERS: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR's Kelly McEvers. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.