At House Arlington hearing, McHugh passes the buck

The Army secretary seems content to let the cemetery's retiring superintendent take the fall

Topics: Arlington National Cemetery Investigation,

At House Arlington hearing, McHugh passes the buckArmy Secretary John McHugh

Army Secretary John McHugh on Wednesday told Congress that the “unimaginable, unacceptable” burial scandal at Arlington National Cemetery has been going on for years — but that Army officials who oversee the cemetery knew nothing about it.

Appearing before the House Armed Services Committee, McHugh found himself in the curious position of admitting that for years the cemetery has lost track of service members’ remains and funneled millions of dollars to shady contractors who produced nothing in return, all without the knowledge of Army officials. He blamed “a real disconnect between the cemetery operations and a regular oversight authority” and said, “Somebody should have said something to someone. Obviously, that did not occur.” Even though two Army offices oversee the cemetery, McHugh described Arlington as “somewhat of a satellite sitting off by itself.”

The Army secretary did say that there is “no excuse” for a still-unknown number of burial mix-ups involving the 330,000 graves at Arlington.

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Rep. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., chaired Wednesday’s hearing, which was designed to probe the Army’s response to the burial and related contracting scandal at Arlington that unfolded during a yearlong investigation by Salon. In his testimony, McHugh slammed the “dysfunctional management, a lack of established policies and procedures, an unhealthy organizational climate, errors in the accountability of remains” and other problems at Arlington.

McHugh was quick to blame the scandal on cemetery Superintendent Jack Metzler, who will be allowed to retire, basically unscathed, on July 2. Officials in two Army offices are responsible for oversight of the cemetery, the Office of the Assistant Secretary of the Army, Civil Works, and the Military District of Washington. McHugh said officials in those two Army offices were ignorant of the problems at Arlington for years. At one point, McHugh suggested that because there were multiple points of Army oversight, no one in the Army performed this duty. “It think there was real confusion (between those two Army offices) as to who had exact oversight authority.”

Salon asked McHugh about the purported ignorance of Army officials during a June 10 Pentagon press conference about the scandal: “Mr. Secretary, has anybody in the past or is anybody in the future going to look into who in the Army, in addition to Mr. Metzler…knew what and when they knew it?”

“From everything I’ve seen, there’s no indication or path to pursue there,” he responded. “Should that change and should information come to our attention, certainly that will happen.”

Mark Benjamin is a national correspondent for Salon based in Washington, D.C. Read his other articles here.

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