Officials emphasize they could still find cases that warrant charges
A Marines task force will examine the culture that led to the posting of nude photos
The US Marine Corps’ top general vowed Tuesday to prosecute those found responsible for posting photos of naked female service members on social media.
But he admitted that investigators are having trouble identifying individual users, stopping the spread of spinoff websites linking to the images and determining the proper recourse under the law to punish those responsible.
Testifying before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Gen. Robert Neller strongly condemned those who posted the photos to private Facebook groups like Marines United and other image-sharing message boards without the consent of the subjects.
“We all have to commit to getting rid of this perversion of our culture,” Neller said. “We will take action to remove this stain on our Marine Corps.”
Neller called on Marines with information about the lewd photos posted to the 30,000-member Marines United to come forward and help investigators identify specific individuals.
But the Marines commandant was unable to offer many specifics when it came to questions from lawmakers about the details of the investigation, and he acknowledged several roadblocks that could make it difficult to bring criminal military charges against those involved.
New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand tore into the Neller, calling his testimony “unsatisfactory” and demanded to know why nothing had been done to hold individuals accountable for the cyberharassment of women even though reports date back to 2013.
“Have you actually investigated and found guilty anybody?” Gillibrand asked in reference to past and current cyber harassment cases. “If we can’t crack Facebook, how are we supposed to be able to confront Russian aggression and cyberhacking throughout our military?”
Ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, Defense officials told CNN that many are privately saying it may be very difficult to bring criminal military charges against those involved, even if they can be found.
Officials declined to speak on the record until the Marine Corps makes it initial findings public. But in internal Defense Department meetings, at least some of the discussion has centered on the difficulty of assembling enough investigative evidence for criminal charges.
However, officials emphasized that this is a very early assessment and it is possible that they could still find cases that warrant charges.
These officials said there are up to a dozen websites investigators are looking at.
In many of the photos being reviewed, the pictures might have been taken in consensual circumstances. In that case, criminal cyber activity charges would potentially center on whether the person being photographed had a right of absolute privacy.
Officials said it could still be possible to take non-criminal disciplinary action against some who were participating in posting photos to the websites and making derogatory online comments if they can be found.
Officials said the entire episode has raised questions about whether the Uniform Code of Military Justice is sufficient to deal with cyber issues, a point that was echoed on several occasions during Tuesday’s hearing.
Neller said last week that a task force would examine the “subculture” that led to the posting of nude photos of female service members on various websites.
“They’re going to look at what’s 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 subculture – that may have given rise to this,” he said.
During the hearing, Neller also reiterated the call to identify issues in military culture to determine why this happened and whether new service members understand that such cyber behavior is not acceptable.