--In recent years the process by which JPAC gathers bones and other material useful for identifications has "collapsed" and is now "acutely dysfunctional."
--JPAC is finding too few investigative leads, resulting in too few collections of human remains to come even close to achieving Congress's demand for a minimum 200 identifications per year by 2015. Of the 80 identifications that JPAC's Central Identification Laboratory made in 2012, only 35 were derived from remains recovered by JPAC. Thirty-eight of the 80 were either handed over unilaterally by other governments or were disinterred from a U.S. military cemetery. Seven were from a combination of those sources.
--Some search teams are sent into the field, particularly in Europe, on what amount to boondoggles. No one is held to account for "a pattern of foreign travel, accommodations and activities paid for by public funds that are ultimately unnecessary, excessive, inefficient or unproductive." Some refer to this as "military tourism."
--JPAC lacks a comprehensive list of the people for whom it's searching. Its main database is incomplete and "riddled with unreliable data."
--"Sketch maps" used by the JPAC teams looking for remains on the battlefield are "chronically unreliable," leaving the teams "cartigraphically blind." Cole likened this to 19th century military field operations.
Absent prompt and significant change, "the descent from dysfunction to total failure ... is inevitable," Cole concluded.
He directed most of his criticism at the field operations that collect bones and other material, as opposed to the laboratory scientists at JPAC who use that material to identify the remains. Cole is a management consultant and recognized research expert in the field of accounting for war remains; he still works at JPAC.
More broadly, the government organizations responsible for the accounting mission, including the Pentagon's Defense Prisoner of War/Missing Personnel Office, or DPMO, which is in charge of policy, have sometimes complicated their task by making public statements that their critics view as disingenuous or erroneous.
The head of DPMO, for example, retired Army Maj. Gen. W. Montague Winfield, said last month at a public forum that the U.S. government has "no evidence" that U.S. servicemen taken prisoner in North Korea during the 1950-53 war were later moved to the former Soviet Union against their will and never returned.
Washington made a detailed case in writing to Moscow in 1993 that such transfers did happen, and the AP has obtained a videotape produced by U.S. officials and given to the Russians at the same time to support the U.S. case.
The tape, which has never before been made public, was provided to the AP by a former government official who was not authorized to release it. It says that based on interviews and other research, U.S. investigators believe "10s if not 100s" of American POWs were transferred to the territory of the former Soviet Union. In some cases they were moved to Russia through rail transfer points in China, the tape asserts.
"Certainly we understand that these operations were never meant to see the light of day," the film says.
The Russian government has repeatedly denied it received American POWs from Korea.
Mark Sauter, a private researcher and co-author with John Zimmerlee of "American Trophies and Washington's Cynical Attitude," an e-book about POWs to be published this month, found in government archives a U.S. intelligence report from August 1955, two years after the war, calling for a bigger intelligence effort to learn about such POW transfers.
"Continued and numerous fragmentary intelligence reports give credence to possible detention of a large number of American POWs in China, Manchuria, U.S.S.R., and North Korea," it said. It cited one "significant report" describing "a large number of U.S. POWs being shipped into U.S.S.R. by rail" from northeast China.
Accounting for the nation's war dead has been a politically charged issue for decades. The debate is not about the practicality of the mission, which some might question, but how it should be pursued.
Sometimes overlooked amid the squabbling is the emotional toll on the families of the missing. They are often bewildered by the bureaucracy and left to watch hope wear away with the passage of time.
In 1975, more than two decades after Pfc. Kenneth F. Reese was declared missing in Korea, his widow, Chris Tench, who had by then remarried, described her feelings in her local newspaper, the Gastonia (N.C) Gazette.
She wrote that initially she was relieved to realize that the policeman who delivered the news about Reese on Dec. 18, 1950, was saying that her husband was missing, not dead. He might turn up alive, she recalled thinking.
Later she thought differently.
"No, missing isn't dead," she wrote. "It's worse than dead."