Defense secretary vows 'full accountability' for mishandling of remains

Defense Secretary Leon Panetta said he intends to press for “full accountability” of those Air Force personnel involved in the mismanagement of fallen U.S. soldiers’ remains.

A report released Tuesday said “gross mismanagement” of deceased troops’ remains occurred at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, and since then, reports have surfaced that parts of deceased troops’ bodies were incinerated and dumped in a Virginia landfill.

Air Force and Pentagon officials say new steps had been enacted to improve the way fallen troops are handled there. Panetta has ordered an independent panel to review the Air Force’s probe of the mismanagement at Port Mortuary at the Dover base.

During a Pentagon briefing Wednesday, Panetta said all fallen American troops deserve a “dignified return” from combat.

The defense secretary said he has asked Air Force Secretary Michael Donley to review whether disciplinary actions enacted against those responsible are adequate. Panetta also wants Donley to examine whether whistleblowers at Dover have been the victims of “management reprisals.”

Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey called the situation “very distressing,” and vowed to “get to the bottom of it.”

Panetta said he has asked for the independent panel to review the Dover mismanagement because the Air Force Office of Special Counsel’s report raised “additional questions” that must be answered.

Pentagon brass want to “make sure we have taken every step to give” the affected military families “peace of mind,” Panetta said. 

Panetta said Donley and Air Force Chief of Staff Norton Schwartz have taken full responsibility for the mismanagement. Asked why anyone should believe Donley’s review of his service’s actions, Panetta said: “I trust Mike Donley.”

The Air Force in 2008 stopped the practice of first cremating, then incinerating separated and unidentifiable remains of soldiers before dumping them in a Virginia landfill. Those body parts are now buried at sea, which military leaders believe is more distinguished and befitting a fallen soldier.

Asked whether he believes the discarded practice was “right,” Dempsey said: “We don’t know what right looks like.” The independent review should shed some light on an answer to that question, the chairman said.

Meantime, Panetta fired a shot across the bow of the congressional debt panel, saying the $600 billion in defense cuts that would be triggered if it fails to reach a deal would make the U.S. military a “paper tiger.”

That’s because those cuts would be in addition to $350 billion in cuts the Pentagon already is implementing under the August debt agreement.

The total figure could reach $1 trillion in Pentagon cuts, and Panetta on Thursday repeated his belief that cuts that big would create “a hollow force.”

The five-year spending plan, beginning with 2013, that the Pentagon will send Congress in February will contain $260 billion in cuts from the budget plan it sent across the Potomac River earlier this year, Panetta told reporters.

He called on the supercommittee to strike a deal on at least $1.2 trillion in federal cuts that targets “the two-thirds of the federal budget” that have so far been spared from cuts and new revenues.

Panetta said his message to lawmakers is they “must show the necessary leadership” and reach a deal.

On Iran, the defense secretary said he agrees with his predecessor, Robert Gates, that if U.S. or Israeli war planes bombed that nation’s nuclear weapons-manufacturing sites, it would only set back Tehran's efforts by three years.

A military strike should be “a last resort,” Panetta stressed, saying the international community should enact the “toughest sanctions” possible.