“The Rabbit Hole Goes Deep”—Marines React to “Black Book” Investigation

Editor’s Note: This update is part of a multipart series. Read part one and part two.

On April 7, The War Horse began publishing a multipart series exploring wrongdoing among general officers and judge advocates in the military. 

The ongoing series exposes rampant imbalances in military justice, demonstrates how mental health is disregarded during criminal proceedings, and reveals that the Corps’ use of a “Black Book” has fostered a culture of favoritism and “sugar daddy deals” that is overseen by the most senior officers and military lawyers. 

This blatant disregard for the rights of the accused allows for wrongdoing to be omitted from the official record and congressional disclosures. 

“It’s a deprivation of Constitutional rights,” wrote a Marine infantry officer who served in Iraq and Afghanistan and now works as a civilian attorney. “Seems like an issue that should be brought before the Armed Services Committee.”

A second Marine who left active duty to become a public defender agreed. 

“Military ‘justice’ is run by entrenched, egotistical, and incompetent bureaucrats in uniforms that value only loyalty,” they wrote. “It is a disgrace to the constitutional values it is supposed to protect.”

Since the publishing of the first two installments, the Marine Corps has remained silent. 

Gen. David Berger is the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Gen. David Berger is the 38th commandant of the Marine Corps. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.

But a senior Marine attorney on active duty wrote that the Corps’ silence is telling.

“The period of silence has dragged on longer than I thought,” the judge advocate told The War Horse. “The fact that they haven’t asked you to retract anything shows that they know you’ve got the goods now.”

Throughout the course of the series, current and former military judge advocates warned that the military’s incestuous legal system jeopardizes recruiting and retention efforts, as well as fosters a culture of mistrust that is ripe for assumptions and manipulation. 

“My motivation for reporting this series is rooted in the words of ‘The Marine’s Hymn,’” explained reporter and Marine veteran Thomas Brennan. “To keep our honor clean.”

In the absence of comment from Marine Corps leadership, The War Horse is highlighting feedback from readers who are active-duty service members and Marine veterans with experiences ranging from senior judge advocates to former public affairs officers and infantrymen to retired generals. 

“Your article you wrote—spot on,” wrote a Marine public affairs officer who worked at Marine Corps headquarters and later resigned their commission after Marine leadership made them ignore journalists and cover up wrongdoing. 

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“I was exhausted from seeing behind the curtain and seeing the inherent, deep hypocrisy happening everywhere, especially at senior ranks.”

The Marine veteran confirmed the existence of the “Black Book” and its misuse by the Judge Advocate Division. 

“I had a friend who was a major who literally was the one who had to enter those issues into the ‘black book,’” they wrote. “The stuff he told us was unreal. If junior Marines did that stuff they’d be ousted in a second.”

Marines use a smoke grenade to conceal movements during riot control training. Photo by Lance Cpl. Fatmeh Saad, courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.

Marines use a smoke grenade to conceal movements during riot control training. Photo by Lance Cpl. Fatmeh Saad, courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The Marine explained that they wrote a resignation letter detailing the hypocrisy, but in the end, senior officers objected because it would be filed as an official record.

“I had to delete everything and write two vague sentences about why I was getting out,” the veteran explained.

The behaviors were so egregious at the Pentagon that the public affairs officer even considered becoming a whistleblower and speaking with journalists, but they feared reprisal. They felt that speaking out could have jeopardized job opportunities after the Corps. 

“Sad state of affairs,” they wrote. “Thank you for bringing this to light.”

Other senior public affairs officers also said they were grateful.

“You’re really painting a clear picture of the Corps’ failure to care for Marines with mental health issues and its misplaced aggression against very vulnerable people,” wrote a retired public affairs officer whose career was cut short for speaking up against officer misconduct and government secrecy. 

“What’s rough is that there are probably even more stories that go untold.”

A sergeant major encourages Marines and sailors to act as ambassadors of the Marine Corps. Photo by Lance Cpl. Amy Phan, courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.

A sergeant major encourages Marines and sailors to act as ambassadors of the Marine Corps. Photo by Lance Cpl. Amy Phan, courtesy of the U.S. Marine Corps.

The retired public affairs officer added that, in his opinion, the Marine Corps would be a more lethal combat force if it adopted a more compassionate mental health infrastructure for service members accused of crimes. 

“It’s certainly not an easy problem to fix and there will always be people who take advantage of the system, but shoring up the mental health response would make sure you provide critical support to Marines when they need it, remove people who aren’t able to perform their duties, keep leadership from making stupid decisions, and return Marines to full duty,” the retired public affairs officer wrote.

An active-duty Marine attorney agreed.

“They can’t avoid how bad it looks to crush junior enlisted with mental health issues while shielding a commander who literally exacerbates people’s mental health troubles,” another senior attorney wrote. “Lots of people with experience prosecuting those cases were typically frustrated with how the command insisted upon criminal prosecution.”

The reporting is also sparking conversation about how to improve the system. 

“The Marine Corps will never tell you this but your story is generating a lot of conversations among Marine attorneys and because we’re discussing shared frustrations we’re also talking about how we can push to solve them,” explained another active duty judge advocate. “Thank you for everything your team is doing.”

Enlisted Marines also valued the reporting.

Lloyd James Austin III is the 28th secretary of defense. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense.

Lloyd James Austin III is the 28th secretary of defense. Photo courtesy of the Department of Defense.

“The work you are doing shining a light on military justice within the Corps, and as selectively applied within the rank structure, is commendable and long overdue,” they wrote. “A lot of damage has occurred to Marines over many years, via a culture that espouses Honor, Courage, Commitment … and Semper Fidelis.”

A recently retired general officer agreed.

“If the Corps wants to counteract its perception of bias, all it had to do was respond or provide better research,” a senior Marine attorney wrote.

“Loved the story. Truth,” wrote a recently retired brigadier general after reading the first two installments of the series. “Military justice reform is widespread and long overdue. Seems like they have no response. That or they will wait until Congress calls them out.”

An enlisted Marine agreed with the general and offered a suggestion for where lawmakers should begin if they want to identify systemic problems, root out toxic leaders, and restore faith in the military justice system. 

“You’d find more, and I mean A LOT more, if you began canvassing the rank and file—if you could get them to speak,” the enlisted service member wrote. 

“You can only defend the lie for so long before the house of cards collapses on itself.”

Don't miss the next story in this series.

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This ongoing series was reported by Thomas J. Brennan, edited by Kelly Kennedy, fact-checked by Ben Kalin, and copy-edited by Mitchell Hansen-Dewar. Abbie Bennett wrote the headlines. Five senior military attorneys volunteered their time to review this series for accuracy. All interviews were recorded and all sources included in the reporting verified the accuracy of The War Horse’s reporting prior to publication during a secondary interview process. Prepublication review was completed by BakerHostetler. Read part one and part two.

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