WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Pentagon will examine possible waste of taxpayer dollars in the government's search for U.S. troops who went missing in action, an official said on Thursday as lawmakers criticized the management of recovery efforts.
The Pentagon's inspector general's office said it had received requests from the Department of Defense and members of Congress to examine concerns "to include potential fraud, waste and abuse" of resources at the Joint POW/MIA Accounting Command.
The command, known as JPAC for short, was criticized in an internal review as well as in a subsequent study by the Government Accountability Office released last month.
The U.S. government watchdog said the MIA recovery mission was being undermined by leadership weaknesses and a fragmented organizational structure across the Department of Defense.
"Families have been waiting for decades to discover the fate of their loved ones," said the GAO's Brenda Farrell in written testimony to a House of Representatives panel on Thursday.
"The weaknesses that we identified in (the Defense Department's) capability and capacity to account for missing persons jeopardize the department's ability to provide some measure of closure to those families."
More than 83,000 U.S. service members are missing from conflicts including the Vietnam War, the Korean War and World War Two, according to Pentagon estimates.
Paul Cole, the JPAC fellow who wrote the highly critical internal review, first reported by The Associated Press, suggested ineffective strategies were hampering recovering efforts.
The Defense Department averaged 72 identifications annually in the decade ending in 2012, according to the GAO.
"The fundamental, chronic problem that continues to plague JPAC concerns the low quantity and marginal quality of remains," he said in written testimony to a House subcommittee.
At a separate Senate oversight hearing, the heads of JPAC and the Pentagon office for missing personnel noted recent improvements, including cooperating with one another, despite allegations of turf battles.
"(We) have made significant strides in improving our unity of effort. But this is an issue that clearly needs further work ," said W. Montague Winfield, the deputy assistant secretary of defense for POW/Missing Personnel Affairs, in written testimony.
But lawmakers, including Senator Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire, were critical.
"I am incredibly disturbed," Ayotte said, citing the recent reports. "What bothered me most was reading about the petty squabbling ... That is not the way we do things."
(Reporting by Phil Stewart; Editing by Doina Chiacu)