The disposal of human remains from the Sept. 11 attack on the Pentagon, including the incineration and dumping of some portions in a landfill, was based on high-level Pentagon instructions, the Air Force's top general said Wednesday.
Gen. Norton Schwartz, the Air Force chief of staff, told reporters that the actions taken by the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware were based on written guidance issued in March 2002 by David Chu, who was the Pentagon personnel chief under Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta directed that the families be briefed on past practices of remains disposal.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said Wednesday the briefings would be offered "within the next few weeks."
"We intend to make the facts about that past policy known to the loved ones of those who died," Little said, noting that in 2008 the practice of disposing of remains in landfills was ended.
Chu did not specifically mention dumping incinerated residue of Sept. 11 remains in a landfill, but his words might have been interpreted to allow that final step.
The Pentagon released a copy of the Chu memo, which was addressed to Thomas White, the Army's top civilian official at the time. The Army oversaw the Air Force's mortuary activities at Dover and elsewhere.
Schwartz said he only became aware Tuesday that some portions of remains were dumped in a landfill.
"To the best of our knowledge at this moment in time, we followed those disposition instructions" from Chu, Schwartz said. He added that "there is a requirement for us to validate that that is the case."
The Chu guidance did not mention disposing of any remains in a landfill. It said unidentifiable remains that were mixed with fragments of "non-biological material" from the attack site were to be "treated in the same manner as any biological tissue removed for surgical or diagnostic purposes (i.e. disposition by incineration)."
That appears to leave open the question of whether disposal in a landfill was permitted.
Chu, who is now president of the Institute for Defense Analyses, a federally funded think tank, did not return a call seeking comment.
The disposal issue came to light Tuesday when the head of an independent panel, retired Gen. John Abizaid, released a report that assessed management problems at the Dover mortuary. His work was triggered by revelations last fall about the mishandling of remains of American war dead at Dover in 2010.
Asked about the Abizaid report Tuesday shortly after its public release, Schwartz and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley said it was the first time they had heard of Sept. 11 remains being disposed of in a landfill.
At a previously scheduled breakfast interview with reporters Wednesday, Schwartz said the Air Force determined that no remains from Flight 93, which crashed in Shanksville, Pa., were handled by the Dover mortuary, "as best we can tell." He added that the Air Force would endeavor to "nail down" with certainty that Dover dealt only with remains from the Pentagon attack.
Schwartz said it was still unclear how many remains portions from the Pentagon were incinerated and dumped.