Bring Back Robert Gates!

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on November 12, 2011

The story that the remains of American war dead have been grossly mishandled is about as grotesque and disgusting a story as any I have recently heard. It would be nice to think that we might have a Secretary of Defense who is on top of the story, and who is determined to ensure that there will be accountability.

Instead, we have Leon Panetta:

When former U.S. Surgeon General Richard Carmona declared Thursday that he was running for the Senate from Arizona, it was a surprise to almost no one, except, it seems, Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta.

Only two days earlier, Panetta had announced that Carmona would head a special panel to examine operations at the military’s Dover mortuary, which has been rocked in recent days by the disclosures that it mishandled remains of troops killed in Iraq and Afghanistan. Panetta was even touting the appointment at a Pentagon press conference Thursday afternoon, more than two hours after Carmona announced his candidacy for the Senate.

“None of us will be satisfied until we have proven to the families of our fallen heroes that we have taken every step possible to protect the honor and dignity that their loved ones richly deserve,’ Panetta told reporters. “Dr. Richard Carmona, who’s the former surgeon general, 17th surgeon general of the United States, along with a distinguished panel, will conduct that review.”

Alerted Friday morning that Carmona had jumped into the Senate race, the Pentagon hastily issued a statement announcing that he was stepping aside. “Dr. Carmona notified the Department this morning that he is stepping down from the panel. Secretary Panetta agrees with that decision, and he will name a replacement very soon,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said.

It was the second time this week that the Dover scandal caught Panetta flat-footed. On Monday, he praised the Air Force for the “thoroughness” of its investigation and said he supported the demotion of two civilians at Dover and reprimanding of the officer in charge. On Thursday, he called for the Air Force to review the punishments given to three Dover officials after the Office of Special Counsel called them inadequate.

A senior Defense official said Carmona had not told them that he was planning to enter the race. But it has been widely reported for weeks that Democratic Party officials and even the White House had been urging him to run.

Under Gates’s tenure, we would not have seen this degree of chaos and confusion at the upper echelons of Pentagon management. The former Secretary would have found out who was responsible for this obscenity, and would have ensure that their heads rolled as surely as night follows day. Alas, Secretary Panetta appears to possess none of the management skills of his immediate predecessor, and as a consequence, the insult to the dead and their families and onetime comrades in arms has been compounded by egregious incompetence at the top of the Pentagon food chain in dealing with the scandal.

I misjudged Leon Panetta once when I thought that he would not make a good Director of Central Intelligence. It appears that I misjudged him again; I thought that he had the makings of a fine Secretary of Defense.

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