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DoD News Briefing on Dover Port Mortuary Independent Review Subcommittee Report at the Pentagon

Presenters: Secretary of the Air Force Michael Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff General Norton Schwartz
February 28, 2012

             BRIGADIER GENERAL LES KODLICK:  Good afternoon, ladies and gentlemen.

             It's my privilege today to welcome Secretary of the Air Force Mike Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff General Schwartz to the Pentagon briefing room.  They're here today to discuss the Air Force aspects to the Defense Health Board independent review panel, which -- they reviewed the Dover port mortuary issue.   

             Secretary Donley has some brief opening remarks, and then they'll both take your questions.  We do have a hard stop at 2:30 today -- I wanted to tell you that up front -- because of some commitments.  I realize that doesn't give you a lot of time.  So we'll be taking the questions after that, if you have follow-on questions. 

             Mr. Secretary. 

             SECRETARY MICHAEL DONLEY:  Thanks Les. 

             Good afternoon.  As you just heard from General Abizaid, the independent panel of the Defense Health Board has provided the Department of Defense and the Air Force with its findings from its review of the corrective actions the Air Force is taking with respect to mortuary procedures at Air Force Mortuary Affairs Operations, AFMAO, at Dover Air Force Base. 

             The panel was asked to review the effectiveness and propriety of the current policies, processes and procedures that were put in place as a result of the Air Force inspector general's investigation and make recommendations about any additional changes that may be required. 

             The men and women who serve at AFMAO recognize what a sacred mission it is to serve our nation's fallen and their families, and they have been working diligently to correct the deficiencies identified in the initial investigations and subsequent reviews.  They will continue to do so as we implement the findings of the Defense Health Board panel. 

             The Chief and I want to thank General Abizaid and members of the panel for their candid review and assessment of AFMAO, as well as recognizing the improvements the Air Force has already put in place there.   

             I'd like to highlight some of the findings and recommendations proposed by the independent panel specific to the Air Force as well as actions I've directed to be implemented at AFMAO.  First, I am directing that the AFMAO commander be given UCMJ authority.  Providing our commander the authority to ensure the appropriate level of accountability is an essential tool in maintaining command discipline. 

             Second, General Schwartz and I agree with the panel's recommendation for a better general officer command structure to oversee the AFMAO mission.  And we've begun discussions on where best to align general officer oversight. 

             Third, we strongly endorse the need for a tailored inspection program appropriate to AFMAO's mission.  The Air Force Inspection Agency is already working with AFMAO to create the needed inspection criteria, and the first inspection under the new program is scheduled to take place this June. 

             Fourth, AFMAO has conducted and will continue to conduct training exercises that cover the health and safety of their personnel. 

             In addition, AFMAO leadership will solicit support from their staff and national industry professionals to provide recommendations on training that will be beneficial to our team. 

             We support the panel's recommendation for a standing board of visitors, including outside professionals, who can oversee and advise AFMAO on the latest and best practices.  In addition, the current AFMAO leadership is working with the National Association of Funeral Directors to have them give recommendations on training that would be beneficial to our embalming team. 

             We also agree with the panel's recommendation to right-size the AFMAO organization and build a surge capability to deal with larger incidents or contingencies should they occur, and we'll undertake a manpower study this summer.  All this work will be coordinated with OSD and our service partners consistent with Deputy Secretary of Defense Carter's and General Dempsey's direction. 

             These are representative of actions we've taken and others under way that will further improve the operations at AFMAO in meeting the solemn mission of providing dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and care, service and support to their families. 

             I also want to take this opportunity to provide you with an update on the review of the disciplinary action taken at the conclusion of the Air Force IG investigation as well as an update on the status of the review of the Office of Special Counsel's investigation into reprisal actions taken against some employees of Dover Port Mortuary. 

             Last December I provided the Secretary of Defense an interim report assessing -- addressing the disciplinary actions taken in response to the Air Force's IG investigation and into allegations made in the whistleblower disclosure case.  The interim report consisted of a comprehensive summary of the disciplinary actions taken, the process used, the legal basis for the actions and the factual record used in determining the appropriate action. 

             The purpose of the report was to gather the facts to ensure that there was a full and complete record of the disciplinary actions stemming from the disclosure case. 

             It was the first step in a three-step process I initiated to conduct this review.  The former officials I appointed to provide an independent assessment of the military and civilian disciplinary actions taken at AFMAO, in response to the allegations uncovered in the disclosure case, have completed their review, and they've reported to me that both the military and civilian disciplinary actions taken last summer, in response to the disclosure allegations, were legal, appropriate and well within the bounds of reasonableness.   

             However, on January 30th, the Air Force received the results of the separate Office of Special Counsel investigation into potential reprisals taken against the whistleblowers at Dover.  The OSC report concluded that reprisals did in fact occur, and this raised the need to consider additional disciplinary action.  I appointed a two-star officer to conduct this review and to take appropriate action, and I expect that this work will be completed around mid-March.  

             Any action taken concerning civilian personnel will be coordinated with OSC.  The Air Force shares a common belief in the importance of whistleblowers' ability to report deficiencies without reprisal.  The individuals who reported the allegations in this manner performed an important service to the Air Force and to the nation. They continue in their positions at AFMAO, and the Air Force is working cooperatively with OSC to make appropriate corrections to their records.   

             Throughout this review process, the Air Force remains committed to this mission as a solemn obligation and to its flawless execution. Moreover, the professionals who work at AFMAO take this responsibility seriously and consider it a privilege to care for America's fallen.   

             The Air Force will continue to aggressively ensure the highest standards are met to provide reverence, dignity, honor and respect to the fallen and the care, service and support owed to the families. 

             At this time we'll take your questions. 

             Q:  Mr. Secretary, I'm Bob Burns from the Associated Press. Regarding the revelation in General Abizaid's report about the 9/11 remains, that several portions were cremated, incinerated and disposed of in a landfill, can you say whether those -- the incineration was done at Dover?  And when did the Air Force become aware of this?  And do you consider it appropriate? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  We intend to take a full and complete look at the Abizaid report.  This is why the panel was put in place.  Our focus is on from here forward.  We have acknowledged our culpability and responsibility for the lapses in performance over the past several years.  And with respect to the issue you raised, it's been three years since there was a change in policy recognizing that prior practices were not appropriate, and we have taken steps since 2008 to move forward to a new place.  And the Abizaid panel offers even additional ideas on how may -- how we may improve performance and provide options to families going forward. 

             So our focus is on the recommendations in the Abizaid panel.  We intend to review them fully.  But the focus is today going forward, and that's where -- that's where we're focused. 

             Q:  We've been aware of other, as you put it, deficiencies, but this one, to my knowledge, had not been mentioned publicly prior to this.  You consider this to be an inappropriate disposition of remains?  And when did you become aware of it? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  I would just say we haven't had a chance to fully absorb all of the findings, conclusions, all the details in the Abizaid report, but they highlighted recommendations that we are focused on implementing, and our intention is to move forward from here. 

             Q:  But surely, Mr. Secretary, you must know, because the Air Force would have had to participate in this investigation, whether those 9/11 remains were disposed of through the Dover mortuary, and I guess that's the question. 

             SEC. DONLEY:  The Chief [of Staff of the Air Force]-- let me just say the Chief and I and the IG investigations that we'd undertaken to date have not gone back to this period.  So --  

             Q:  But you're not taking issue with that finding in the Abizaid report that 9/11 -- some unidentified remains from 9/11 victims were disposed of at the Dover mortuary? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  We haven't had a chance to review all the details and appendices and sources of material that the panel pulled together. That's why they were pulled together.  That's why the panel was established to kind of work through these issues.  And I think -- I think the history that the panel provides is a good context for a long-standing series of problems and challenges in executing this mission.  So I think it adds -- it adds context to the recommendations the panel has made for how to correct and continue to improve our processes going forward and that's -- 

             Q:  Can I just follow up? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  -- that's where we're focused. 

             Q:  Can I just follow up?  I mean, when we -- in a previous Air Force press conference, we were told that the records only went back to 2008 or two years before that.  So -- but somehow the Abizaid panel has gotten access to records that go back substantially longer, a decade or more.  

             I mean, how is that possible? 

             SEC. DONLEY: I'll just say we haven't had a chance to review all the details behind the appendices and all the material that the panel has pulled together. 

             Q:  Did I understand -- are you actually questioning what's in the report?  You can't even confirm what's in the records of your own Air Force? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  We haven't had a chance to review all of the records of the panel and understand completely where the information came from.  So we'll go into all of this in more depth going forward. 

             Q:  So your answer to whether you approve of this practice that's outlined in the report is that you don't know if it happened or you're not aware of it? 

             GENERAL SCHWARTZ:  Elizabeth, you got the report before we did.  We've both been on Capitol Hill for the last four hours.  Allow us at least the opportunity to go through the report ourselves. 

             Q:  But your answer suggests that you never did -- I mean, for whatever reason, and it may be perfectly logical, but that you -- you had not until now been aware of this, is what you seem to be saying, both of you. 

             GEN. SCHWARTZ: That's what I'm saying. 

             Q:  OK.  It wasn't clear from the Secretary's answer. 

             Q:  Mr. Secretary, could I just ask you -- it's confusing to me -- what role the Army plays with mortuary operations? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  Sure. 

             Q:  What's your understanding and what's that going to be as you move forward? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  Well, I think this is why it's important that we continue to work with OSD and our service partners in this effort. There are four different organizations involved in supporting the AFMAO mission.  There is AFMAO and the port mortuary operation there at Dover.  But they're supported at that location by the medical -- Armed Forces Medical Examiner, AFME, which is -- for which the Army is the executive agent.  And that organization actually reports to an Army Medical Command.  In addition, there is a Joint Personal Effects Depot, an organization that manages the personal effects not only of the fallen, but also of wounded personnel or other -- U.S. nationals or other sort of operations in which U.S. personnel were unable to take ownership of their personal effects. 

             So there is that depot.  That reports to a separate organization as well. 

             And a fourth -- a fourth element of the mission is also -- is the service liaison officers who are assigned by the Army, Navy, Marine Corps and of course the Air Force to serve as liaisons to the depot and to be liaisons with the family.  Those liaison officers report to their respective services, and they get training that is different, perhaps, across services. 

             So the point of General Abizaid's finding here is that there is more than one service involved in this work.  There is an executive agent.  There is a Joint Mortuary Affairs Board that is intended to oversee this work and to develop the policies and procedures that provide for commonality and coordination of the seams between these organizations as they perform the mortuary work together. 

             So I think that is, you know, an important finding from the panel that is a good description of what it takes to perform this mission. 

             Q:  And I'd just ask a quick follow-up.  The medical examiners were BRAC'd to Dover.  Could that have possibly caused some of the problems and confusion that have been on a -- persisting in the command? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  Well, maybe the Chief has some additional insights.  I would say that the activity level at Dover and some of the issues -- challenges we've faced in managing operations there did related to the change in organizational structure there, the arrival of the Armed Forces Medical Examiner mission there, changes to their construction programs. 

             AFMAO was very busy during that period.  And here, unlike in a -- in a civil organization where the county coroner is at one location and a funeral home is at another location, these two organizations are side by side.  And working the seams and the accountability of remains with these two organizations intermingled have been a challenge. 

             Q:  Gentlemen, you've been looking at the whistle-blower complaints, the OSC complaints, the review of the discipline.  When you ordered your earlier investigation, how far back did you ask people to look?  Are you today satisfied with that, or do you think the Air Force needs to do a fuller accounting of the last decade of problems at AFMAO and Dover? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  Well, the Air Force IG investigation and the OSC investigations were focused on the allegations made by the whistleblowers concerning current operations at Dover.  That was our focus. 

             Q:  Do -- but my question today is, do you think a fuller backward historical accounting of the problems or potential problems is necessary, or is that counterproductive? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  I think we'll make that judgment after we've had a chance to take in the full scope of the panel's record. 

             Q:  Mr. Secretary, if I could ask you to clarify something, you mentioned that you had a review team, regarding the whistleblowers, former officials you appointed to provide an independent assessment. And you said they came back to you and said the actions taken last summer were legal, appropriate and well within the bounds of reasonableness. 

             When was that, that they came back to you? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  This was in the December-January time frame. 

             Q:  So, I guess a number of people in Congress are upset that the Air Force has not taken stronger disciplinary action against some supervisors at Dover.  So, you know, you didn't fire anybody the first round.  You had other former officials review it, tell you that what you did was appropriate, and now it's taken another -- Office of Special Counsel investigation to find that potential reprisals were in fact taken against the whistleblowers.  Have you been slow to recognize the seriousness of how the whistleblowers were treated by their -- by their supervisors? 

            SEC. DONLEY:  No. 

             Q:  Can you -- (off mic) -- to the mic, please. 

             SEC. DONLEY (?):  The answer is no, because the Office of Special Counsel investigation on reprisals was conducted separately from the Air Force IG investigation.  So we had no inside knowledge of how that investigation would proceed or when it would conclude.  So -- but we always knew that OSC had a separate investigation going and that, when it delivered its results, we may have additional actions taken.   

             Q:  Could I get a clarification, Mr. Secretary, and perhaps you, General? 

             Understanding that perhaps you haven't had a chance to look at the Abizaid report, but in regard to the portion where it talks about remains from 9/11 from the Pentagon and Shanksville were disposed of in a landfill, were both of you totally unaware of that previously? Did it take you by surprise?  Is this -- is this the first you're hearing of it or were you aware of that? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  This is new information to me.   

             Q:  And in your opening statement, you called the handling of the nation's war dead "a sacred mission."  Yet the Abizaid report found that there was an inadequate command structure.  "Orphaned" is what he called it.   

             And you two would know better than I, but my experience is, if there's no adequate command structure, the people responsible think the leadership is not taking this seriously, and therefore it could lead to mistakes like this.  Is -- General, can you speak to that? 

             GEN. SCHWARTZ:  General Abizaid's point is that we did not have a commander working for a commander.  And the arrangement that we have had since the early part of 2009, has the commander at the Mortuary Affairs Office working for a staff officer here in Washington.  And his point is that that's not the ideal arrangement -- in other words, to have a field commander working for the air staff.  Fair point. 

             The issue for us at the time was that this was a significant enough mission that there was a sense that it needed to have Washington involvement and attention, and therefore there was a choice to put the supervision under our collective supervision.   

             His point is, there needs to be a command chain, and we are certain -- we take his point, and we're in the process of deciding where that two-star numbered Air Force equivalent command should reside and what the arrangement would be. 

             But again, these are matters of judgment.  His recommendation is that there needs to be a -- not a commander working for a staff officer but a commander working for a commander, and we will make that happen.   

             Q:  Do you believe that the command structure was adequate? 

             GEN. SCHWARTZ:  I think certainly during our tenure, I believe it was, and -- but again, we asked for the best advice that John Abizaid and his panel could provide. 

             We accept that advice -- I know the Secretary of Defense does -- and will act accordingly, sir. 

             BRIG. GEN KODLICK:  Let's go to Courtney, and then Chris, you get the last question. 

             Q:  Well, with all due respect, General Schwartz, you know, General Abizaid -- he called it "dysfunctional, isolated and orphaned."  Who should have been responsible during your tenure for recognizing that there was this lack of oversight at Dover, I mean, at a place where there should be monumental respect and attention paid to it?  Who -- which -- 

             GEN. SCHWARTZ:  You're looking at him.  Me.  I'm responsible. 

             SEC. DONLEY:  But I think I've made the point before, if I -- if I might interject here, that I don't think, given the circumstances, the sensitive nature of this mission -- the sensitive nature of this mission and how it is conducted within the confines of a very small organization, a subset of what is already a very small organization, we would not have heard of these problems were it not for the whistleblowers going outside the organization. 

             I think General Abizaid's point was a commander working for a commander gives the internal workforce an option of where to -- where to report trouble up the chain of command that is a little bit, perhaps, more approachable or more available than it is if it's a headquarters staff in Washington.  So I think that's part -- was part of General Abizaid's thinking. 

             BRIG. GEN KODLICK:  (Inaudible.)  Go ahead, Chris. 

             Q:  Mr. Secretary, now that you have been made aware of these 9/11 remains, how high of a priority will it be for you to determine if they were cremated at Dover, and if so, how many? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  Well, again, I think we have to take in all the results of the -- of the panel's work and understand the documentation and where the information came from, and I think this is a decision that has to be worked at the -- at the DOD level.   

             We certainly have expressed our regret for the additional grief caused to families of loved ones whose remains were handled in -- perhaps a less than ideal or, by some measures, even an inappropriate standard, prior to 2008. 

             Q:  Does that extend also to the families of 9/11 victims? 

             SEC. DONLEY:  Prior to 2008.   

             I mean, we -- you know, we are not aware of all the details going back 10, 15, 20 years here, and there will be a decision, I suppose, at some point on how -- you know, what more time should be invested in this work.  

             And I think the panel's focus on our current operations, while they provided an appendix and additional material which provides a longer-term history and context to this work -- the panel's focus was on giving us the tools that we need to continue to improve operations moving forward.  And that's really where we need to focus our time -- is improving current operations to make sure that this kind of event does not occur again.  And the more time we spend on improving that, the better we'll -- the better off we'll be. 

             Q:  Just a housekeeping measure?  Could we ask Air Force staff somehow to respond to the question as to whether the 9/11 victims were disposed of through Dover or Army mortuary --  

             SEC. DONLEY:  We'll take -- we'll take that for the record. We'll take that. 

             Q:  If we could just add -- (off mic) --  

             SEC. DONLEY:  Thank you all for coming.

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