How The Marines United Investigation and Scandal Unfolded
This is the first of a three-part series about the silent epidemic of sexual harassment and assault in the Department of Defense.
Marines United sent shockwaves through the Marine Corps, roiled federal legislators, and captured media attention domestically and abroad when The War Horse and Reveal broke the scandal in early March 2017. But all parties are not aligned on how to address the exploitative behavior displayed in the Marines United Facebook group. Some legislators believe that because the Corps has had its chance to make change and failed to do so, it’s time that Congress take the reigns.
This is the story of how The War Horse’s investigation and the fallout have unfolded, from the day in late January when a Google Drive containing photographs of service women in various stages of undress was posted in Marines United until now.
Marines United was a males-only and invite-only Facebook group with 30,000 members, including active duty and retired Marines, Navy corpsmen, and British Royal Marines. On January 30, 2017, one member posted a link to a Google Drive containing folders of images—mostly nudes—of fellow servicewomen, without their consent. Many of the folders were labeled with the women’s names, ranks, and duty stations. Anyone with the Google Drive link could access the folders, and the original poster invited Marines United members to contribute. Beyond sharing photos and information, members wrote dozens of obscene comments, including some statements that the women should be raped. Of Marines United’s 30,000 members, at least 500 members have been confirmed to have accessed the cloud service, Google Drive, containing the pictures.
The photos came from many different sources. Some were taken without the women’s knowledge, some were pulled from social media accounts, and some had been taken by the women or by an intimate partner and non-consensually distributed.
Thomas Brennan, The War Horse founder and a Marine veteran, was a member of the Marines United Facebook group and saw the posting go up and watched as users commented. He opened the Google Drive and took screenshots of the directory of folders—though not the images themselves—to send when he reported the Google Drive to HQ Marine Corps. While he was indexing the Google Drive, he saw a folder with the name of a female service woman whom he’d met in his capacity as a reporter. That’s when the gravity of what he was seeing hit home.
Brennan reported the Google Drive and the name of the original Facebook poster to HQ Marine Corps on January 30. The original poster was fired from his position as a government subcontractor, according to Maj. Clark Carpenter, a Marine Corps spokesman. The poster’s Facebook account and the Google Drive on which the images were stored were deleted, but the Marines United Facebook group remained live and active. Some members began posting angry comments directed at whomever had reported the Google Drive. Brennan remained in the group.
Over the next month the exploitative behavior continued. On February 16, a serviceman stood behind a uniformed woman who was picking up gear at Camp Lejeune and took pictures of her. He uploaded them as he stood there, and in real-time other group members commented on the Facebook thread and suggested that she be raped.
On February 21, Brennan drove to the Pentagon where he explained the story he was reporting and the evidence he had collected to more than a dozen Pentagon officials, including half a dozen senior field-grade officers. The binder of evidence he brought was filled with more than 500 screenshots of Facebook profiles of servicemen who commented on or interacted with the original Facebook post. The original post accumulated 364 “likes,” 35 “love’s,” 34 “laughs,” and seven “wows.”
“Nobody seemed shocked,” he said. “I think there was a unanimous ‘oh shit’ moment.” Brennan allowed himself to be debriefed “in whatever way they saw fit,” and said he would cooperate with the NCIS investigation. If the Pentagon issued a formal request for the evidence, Brennan told them he would turn it over. But the Pentagon did not issue a formal request until two days after the story was published, on March 6. The meeting was about an hour and a half, and Brennan spent the rest of the day meeting with other Judge Advocate General (JAG) lawyers to talk about his reporting. That night he drove home.
Over the next couple weeks, Brennan continued to report, pushing the Pentagon for more in-depth comment about the Naval Criminal Investigative Service’s ongoing investigation into the online Facebook activity. The Marines United Facebook remained live.
Late in the day on Friday, March 3, a 10-page “Office of Marine Corps Communications Public Affairs Guidance” by HQ Marine Corps was distributed to about 100 generals. The document introduced the non consensual nude photo sharing on Marines United and Brennan’s investigation. It provided talking points and outlined public relations strategy.
The following day, in order that the leak not undermine the story, The War Horse in concert with Reveal for the Center for Investigative Reporting broke the Marines United scandal.
Within hours Brennan and his family began receiving death threats and had to leave their home. Media requests began pouring in, and by Monday, the story had made headlines in more than a hundred media outlets, including The New York Times and The Washington Post, and had begun to appear in international news outlets.
Over the next week, Secretary of Defense James Mattis and the Commandant of the Marine Corps General Robert Neller rebuked Marines involved in the nonconsensual photo sharing.
Neller released a video statement on Twitter condemning the behavior on Tuesday, March 7, three days after the story broke.
The Commandant of the Marine Corps, @GenRobertNeller, asks you: “Do you really want to be a Marine?” pic.twitter.com/ClmuTyA7pw
— U.S. Marines (@USMC) March 7, 2017
“When I hear allegations of Marines denigrating their fellow Marines,” he said, “I don’t think such behavior is that of true warriors or warfighters.”
In this statement, Neller asked Marines to report harassment or abuse, and added that he expected leadership to support victims and to protect them from retaliation. He also called for officers to better prevent harassment, and to teach those in their charge the rules and the negative impact of this misconduct.
“If changes need to be made, they will be made,” he said.
The next day, on March 8, Representative Jackie Speier, D-Calif., demanded accountability from military leaders in a speech on the House floor. Meanwhile, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., sent a letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee leadership to request a hearing on the issue. Gillibrand is a member of the committee. Both women have pushed for years to make the military a safer place for women.
By March 14, General Neller and acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley found themselves in the hot seat at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing while elected officials demanded answers.
Officials on both sides of the aisle came together in a show of bipartisanship as they emphasized the seriousness of the allegations and demanded a strong response. They interrogated the two leaders on details of the investigation, the culture that has allowed—and some might argue, encouraged—these actions, and what punishments could be in store for those Marines who participated.
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“We know the Marine Corps cannot fight and win the nation’s wars if Marines do not respect and trust one another,” said Senator John McCain, R-Ariz., in his opening statement. “This is not just a matter of good, personal conduct, but a matter of military effectiveness.”
Both Neller and Stackley quickly denounced the misconduct, which Stackley called “toxic, predatory behavior” that “amounts to an insider threat.” The two testified they are investigating the matter through a task force and vowed to take continued action.
For the Senators, this was not enough.
Why, Gillibrand asked, should they trust the Marine Corps’s promises after it had failed to take action in 2013 when Congress had raised the same issues?
“When you say to us, ‘it’s got to be different,’ that rings hollow,” Gillibrand said. “Who has been responsible? Have you actually investigated or found guilty… anybody?”
In response, General Neller claimed responsibility for the lack of appropriate action.
“We are going to have to change how we see ourselves, and how we treat each other,” he said. “That is a lame answer, but, ma’am, that is the best I can tell you right now.”
POLICY SHIFTS & PROPOSED LEGISLATION
Following the story’s publication, Pentagon leadership has rushed to address charges that the Marine Corps fosters a dangerous environment for women. In response to pressure from elected officials, the press, and the public, the Department of Defense denounced the behavior and signed a new USMC social media policy.
The updated social media guidance made explicit that the Uniform Code of Military Justice specifically applies to sexual harassment on social media, in addition to all other forms of sexual harassment.
On April 19, six weeks after publication, Acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley signed new regulations that criminalized distributing intimate photos without the subject’s consent in the Navy and the Marines. The regulations went into effect immediately.
An update in May to the Marine Corps separation manual made clear that service members who share explicit images without the subject’s consent risk dishonorable discharge, since any Marine convicted of the crime would face mandatory separation proceedings. The separation manual explains procedure for all forms of retirement or discharge.
Officials on Capitol Hill have also taken action. Senators and Representatives have demanded accountability in written statements and hearings. In the omnibus budget passed in late April, $18 million was added in defense spending for “consulting services” to assist the Corps in addressing this scandal. Details of how that money will be spent were not specified. In May, the House unanimously passed a bill that would criminalize sharing explicit images without the subject’s consent within the military. Protecting the Rights of IndiViduals Against Technological Exploitation Act (PRIVATE), which was sponsored by Martha McSally, R-Ariz., is awaiting hearing in the Senate. Senator Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., has introduced a Senate version of the PRIVATE Act.
On June 13, Senators Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., and Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska, introduced Protecting Servicemembers Online Act of 2017. Like PRIVATE, this Senate bill would prohibit the distribution of pornographic images without the consent of the subject and harassing communication.
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Gillibrand’s office confirmed after another Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Marines United that the Senator would be reintroducing the Military Justice Improvement Act. The bill, which she initially introduced in 2013 and then again in 2014, would change procedure for reporting sexual assaults, designating someone other than a direct supervisor to hear and investigate claims of abuse. MJIA was filibustered on the Senate floor in both 2013 and 2014.
But these changes are only as effective as their enforcement, which remains a serious concern for advocates who feel that to-this-point the Corps has not addressed the epidemic of sexual assault and harassment—and the culture that fosters it—as seriously as necessarily.