Defense Secretary Leon Panetta reaffirmed today that the recent flaps at the mortuary facility at Dover Air Force Base are a priority as he ordered the Air Force to conduct a new review that could lead to harsher disciplinary actions against those already reprimanded for improper disposal of body parts.
At a Pentagon briefing today, Panetta said that the disposal of military remains and “ensuring the recovery and dignified return of our fallen heroes … is one of the department’s most sacred responsibilities. And that’s why all Americans, including myself, are justifiably disturbed by the reports of mismanagement at Dover Port Mortuary that came to light this week.”
Panetta said that one of his first meetings after coming into office in July was with Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Norton Schwartz on their investigation into Dover.
“They were forthcoming with me,” Panetta said. “It was clear that they took these allegations seriously and that they were committed to strengthening the department’s handling of this most sacred and solemn task.”
Although the United States Office of Special Counsel produced a report that Panetta called “thorough,” he still requested an independent review by a “distinguished panel” because of additional questions raised.
“This review commission will look at the processes and procedures there, and make sure that we are implementing the highest standards in dealing with the remains of our fallen heroes,” Panetta said.
With criticism that the Air Force’s own IG investigation was light on punishments for those in charge at Dover, Panetta said he wanted to make sure appropriate disciplinary action was taken and determine whether or not there were “management reprisals” taken against the whistleblowers at Dover.
When asked if what happened at Dover is a black-and-white issue or if a higher moral standard should apply, Panetta responded that it was a command decision, but that “we have to pay the greatest respect and reverence to the remains of our fallen heroes. That’s what I think ought to be considered in this situation.”
After the Pentagon briefing, Air Force Secretary Donley released a statement reaffirming that “there is no question the Air Force is accountable to our joint teammates and the families of the fallen for this critical and sacred mission.”
He said, “The lapses in our standards at Dover, which we sincerely regret, are our responsibility to fix.”
He promised that the new review would be “exceedingly thorough and rigorous” because the fallen and their families “deserve nothing less.”
Earlier today at the Capitol, the Dover controversies were raised by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., during a committee hearing about whether the National Guard should join the Joints Chiefs of Staff.
“I want to make sure that the inspector generals are not so busy looking after the institution that they fail to point out wrongdoing, which was not ever acknowledged, and that there is accountability for the people involved,” McCaskill said.
Schwartz responded that “there clearly were unacceptable mistakes made. Whether they constitute wrongdoing is another matter entirely. …You look at the context in which the event or the mistakes occurred. And you also consider the demands that are placed on individuals and organizations.”
As to accountability, Schwartz said, the letter of reprimand handed to the senior official at Dover was “not a trivial sanction,” given that he lost out on an upcoming promotion.