Marines will probe nude-photo scandal; Mattis to discuss issue with all services

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller listens to comments during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington on Feb. 2, 2016.


By COREY DICKSTEIN | STARS AND STRIPES Published: March 10, 2017

WASHINGTON -– A Marine Corps task force will investigate the nude-photo scandal and scrutinize internal cultural issues and policies that might have led some male servicemembers to share explicit images of female Marines on the Internet, Gen. Robert Neller, the service’s commandant, announced Friday.

During a news conference about the scandal, Neller said he has appointed Assistant Commandant Gen. Glenn Walters to lead the task force.

“They’re going to look at what is going on while developing plans for corrective actions and recommendations to policies, procedures, education and training of Marines that will prevent this in the future and the culture, I’d say sub-culture, that may have given rise to this,” Neller told reporters at the Pentagon. “We’re going to address this … head on. We’re going to be self-critical, self-analytical, and we also have to recognize that there is a problem, and we have to figure out how to solve it.”

The nude-photo sharing scandal was uncovered last weekend in a report by the Center for Investigative Reporting with the War Horse, a nonprofit military news website.

Other military services also have begun to focus on reports that servicemembers have engaged in activities similar to the allegations raised against the “Marines United” Facebook group. An International Business Times report on Thursday revealed another website containing hundreds of photos of women identified as servicemembers. Some commentators on the website referred to nude photos posted as “wins,” and sometimes identified the women in the photos by their names and home stations. Like the Center for Investigative Reporting’s report, the International Business Times report was written by a Marine veteran.

In the coming days, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis will meet with top uniformed and civilian Pentagon leaders to discuss the issue, Navy Capt. Jeff Davis, a Pentagon spokesman, said Friday. Mattis, a retired Marine Corps general, was “disturbed” by the allegations, Davis said.

“The purported actions of civilian and military personnel on social media websites, including some associated with the Marines United group and possibly others, represent egregious violations of the fundamental values we uphold at the Department of Defense,” Mattis said in a written statement.

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has opened a criminal probe into the allegations. NCIS officials declined to comment on the ongoing investigation. It was unclear Friday whether other criminal investigations had been launched into the scandal.

Two defense officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the matter candidly, said rumors occasionally cropped up in recent years of websites on which some servicemembers shared “revenge porn-style” photographs of ex-wives or ex-girlfriends, including active-duty servicemembers.

At least 34 states have outlawed the online sharing of private nude photographs intended only to be seen by specific individuals, according to Cyber Civil Rights Initiative, a nonprofit activist group dedicated to outlawing “revenge porn.” But punishments vary. For example, it is a misdemeanor in Georgia and Michigan but it is a felony in Idaho and the District of Columbia.

The officials said they were unaware of any previous large-scale military investigations into such websites.

Neller decline to speculate Friday whether he thought male Marines were targeting females because they were averse to women serving in traditionally all-male, front-line combat jobs. However, if that was the purpose behind the postings, Neller had a message for those Marines: “If you think you are helping me or the institution, I don’t need your help this way. I do not.”

The first two female Marine infantrymen reported to their unit in January.

“We’ve been fighting for 15 years, men and women, side-by-side,” Neller said. “Women – they did their thing. I don’t know what else they’ve got to do for some to say, ‘Yeah, they’re good to go.’ I mean, we all bring something to the game.”

The Marine Corps first learned of the allegations about the “Marines United” webpage in late January when an anonymous source – later revealed to be the Marine veteran who reported the Center for Investigative Reporting article – provided them evidence of the scandal, Neller said Friday.

So far, less than 10 female servicemembers have reported they were victims of harassment on the “Marines United” page or similar websites, the general said. He added he encouraged anyone who believed they were a victim of online or another harassment to report it to their commanders.

“We need their help,” Neller said.

No criminal charges have been filed so far in the probe, he said.

It is not clear how long the Marine task force’s investigation could last. Neller said he charged the group with helping him get “some sort of understanding of what’s going on and who is involved,” but he did not provide a deadline.

“We don’t want to be in a hurry,” he said. “We want to make sure we are thorough and we are within the law. We’ll uncover things as we go along.”

Lawmakers, too, will look into the matter.

Neller will brief the Senate and House armed services committees next week on the nude-photo sharing scandal, though much of those discussions could happen behind closed doors due to the ongoing investigation.

“They will be able I suspect to tell us what they know so far but they certainly do not want to do anything and we don’t want to ask them to do anything that could jeopardize potential disciplinary action or steps that may be appropriate in the case,” said Rep. Mac Thornberry, R-Texas, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee.

Neller said he canceled a planned trip to visit Marines training in Norway to meet with lawmakers.

“I was going to go see a bunch of Marines above the Arctic Circle training, and doing all this stuff that the great, great majority of us came into the Marine Corps to do – travel, do challenging things, represent our nation,” he said. “Instead, I’m going to be up on Capitol Hill.”

Stars and Stripes reporter Travis Tritten contributed to this story.

Twitter: @CDicksteinDC