Newly released Pentagon documents show that US Air Force officers debated briefly about burial at sea before concluding that 1,321 unidentifiable fragments of remains from the 11 September, 2001, attack on the Pentagon should be treated as medical waste and incinerated.
A string of emails running from 5 August through 7 August, 2002, reveal that an unidentified Air Force colonel suggested scattering the already-cremated remains at sea. A second official, a civilian, said it might be appropriate also to have witnesses and a chaplain present.
Their arguments that the 9/11 remains were not just normal waste were rejected by others who concluded the material was medical waste and should not be treated like human remains.
The emails were among nearly 2,000 pages of documents released by the Pentagon on Friday detailing operations at the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware, investigations into problems and mishandling of war dead and other remains there, and records about the disposal of body fragments.
The release came hours after senior Pentagon officials met with the families of some of the victims of the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon to provide greater details about the incineration and dumping of small amounts of residual remains, potentially of their loved ones, in a landfill.
Last month's disclosure that incinerated 9/11 remains were sent to a landfill triggered outrage and demands for additional information about the practice, which was ended in June 2008. Since then the Air Force has put remnants in urns and disposed of them at sea from Navy or Coast Guard ships.
The emails, however, back up claims that there was a debate in the months after 9/11 over how best to treat small body fragments from the Pentagon rubble that could not be individually identified, and were often mixed with other material such as dirt and concrete.
In the string of emails titled "Group F bio waste," one colonel said, "I do like the idea of spreading the ashes at sea in that it is a neutral arena." And the colonel asks for written direction to set up the sea burial.
The response from the other unidentified official said that Personnel Command at the military's Mortuary Affairs said that the contract says that no medical waste can be returned to the military services. And that "powder and ashes from the incineration of the material and the containers that were used for the burning is to be disposed of as normal waste."
The email continued, "We should not be attempting to spread the residue as sea, as it could possible (sic) send a message to the next of kin that we are disposing human remains and that is not the case."
And the final conclusion was to dispose of all the material immediately.
A colonel acknowledged the decision, adding only that "my point, as you are aware of, is that Group F is not your normal set of medical waste."
The response, from a civilian, said "totally agree," and added that the decision was coordinated with higher headquarters' officials. The civilian added, "Understand Group F was special."
The final email suggested that some may have believed this was a decision that might be challenged later, as it warned other recipients to keep the email record "as proof of our coordination."
Officials and documents released Friday lay out some of the different categories of remains from the 9-11 attack on the Pentagon. The first group included intact victims, the second remains that were not intact but the able identifiable.
"Group C" was eventually identified as the human remains of 25 victims, which were later cremated and buried at Arlington Cemetery. Group D comprised mixed human remains that were not individually identified but found not to have been associated with any of the terrorists, and they were also targeted for release to Arlington.
Group E was remains of the terrorists, which were sent to the FBI. And Group F was 1,321 portions tagged by the FBI as "non-associable" fragments that could not be further identified and were mixed with fragments of nonbiological material.
During a press conference Friday, Jo Ann Rooney, the acting defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said that some Group F remains included biological material that may not have been human and it could not be determined if there were terrorist remains mixed in. It could, she said, have been "something from someone's lunch."
The practice at the time, in a situation like that, she said, would be to treat the latter group of remains as medical waste.
Rooney met with family members Friday morning, and said later that, "The victims deserve the utmost care, dignity and respect with regard to their treatment. That's what they and their families received."
She also said that the 2002 debate about the disposal of the 9/11 remains spread across the department into very senior leaders.
"Truly, again, the idea was we wanted to do the best we could for dignity and care for the remains," she said.
The first revelations of the disposal came last month when the head of an independent panel, retired Gen. John Abizaid, released a report that assessed management problems at the at the Air Force mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.
His work was triggered by disclosures last year about the mishandling of remains of American war dead at Dover in 2010.
According to the US Office of Special Counsel, the Air Force has begun disciplinary procedures against former Dover Mortuary commander Col. Robert Edmondson and another former supervisor, Trevor Dean, in connection with allegations they retaliated against workers who reported the mishandling of human remains there.
Brig. Gen. Eden Murrie, director of Air Force services, said Friday that the disciplinary procedures would be completed in mid to late April. Those actions are in addition to earlier censures taken against those two and one other employee in the fall for mismanagement at Dover.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters late last month that the actions taken by the Dover mortuary were based on written guidance issued in March 2002 by David Chu, who was the Pentagon personnel chief under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.