Marine Capt. James Clement speaks with a fellow Marine in Quantico, Va., during a lunch break from his administrative hearingon Tuesday. (Alan Lessig / Staff)
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MARINE CORPS BASE QUANTICO, VA. — Capt. James Clement was the senior Marine Corps officer on a 2011 combat patrol in Afghanistan when a video was made showing four scout snipers urinating on dead insurgents. But was he in a position to stop them?
That was the operative question during the start of an administrative hearing convened here in Quantico on Tuesday. The panel of senior officers overseeing the hearing will determine whether Clement, who is accused of substandard performance and misconduct, will keep his military career or be thrown out of the Marine Corps.
Clement was charged in February with conduct unbecoming an officer and dereliction of duty for allegedly failing to supervise those involved in the urination video, which incited international outrage and prompted Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Jim Amos to tour the force admonishing what he saw as a breakdown in discipline. Those charges were dropped suddenly in September, amid allegations that Amos and others close to him had attempted to manipulate the military justice system and ensure Marines would be punished for the video, and Clement was ordered instead to appear before this administrative board.
Military attorneys prosecuting Clement led their argument with a series of video clips made during the patrol, which the Marines conducted July 27, 2011, in Sandala, a community in the Musa Qala district of Afghanistan’s Helmand province. The clips, many shot just minutes apart, depict scout snipers firing on an unseen position from within a rustic open-air compound.
Prosecutors contend the imagery shows several violations. In one, the men can be seen without their kevlar helmets and other personal protective equipment. They say there is evidence of a negligent discharge as one member of the patrol attempts to load an M203 grenade launcher, and evidence the scout snipers fired their weapons without positively identifying their targets.
Coarse language can be heard throughout the videos.
Though Clement was on the patrol to serve as a radio operator, he should have stepped up as an officer and corrected the snipers’ bad behavior immediately, said Capt. Justin Petty, assistant counsel for the prosecution.
“When no one else was correcting anyone, Capt. Clement failed to be that lone voice,” Petty said.
Clement’s civilian attorney, John Dowd, disputed much of what the prosecution claimed the videos depicted. The alleged negligent discharge, for example, was the result of a mechanical failure, he said, noting also that the videos failed to capture incoming enemy fire. Regardless, Dowd added, Clement was not in a position to monitor much of the snipers’ behavior as he was manning the radio intensively and almost nonstop for some four hours during the patrol.
In a legal brief submitted to the board ahead of Tuesday’s hearing, Clement’s legal team suggested that the snipers were considered “separate and special,” a 40-man platoon whose mission “from the battalion commander was to kill as many enemy as possible and instill fear and hesitancy into the insurgency.” As such, no officers were assigned to lead them, it says, and instead they were commanded by a staff sergeant who reported directly to battalion leadership.
“To argue that Capt. Clement was the senior Marine on board this patrol was clearly not the intent of the commanding officer,” Dowd told the board Tuesday. “Senior [noncommissioned officers] were in command of these patrols.”
The prosecution’s witnesses included Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon, who commanded the battalion to which the scout sniper platoon was attached. Dixon said he was disappointed and embarrassed when he reviewed the video footage during the course of an internal investigation into Clement’s actions.
“When I saw the video, what surprised me was the cowboy nature of it,” Dixon said. “Guys in ball caps, guys with or without gear on. What sounded like indiscriminate fire.”
Though he acknowledged that noncommissioned officers were heading up the patrol, Dixon said that regardless of position, Clement had a responsibility as an officer to correct the bad behavior he saw.
In all, eight Marines faced disciplinary action in connection with the urination video. Two staff sergeants and a sergeant were taken to court-martial and demoted in rank. Clement was the only officer to face criminal charges.
Controversy erupted this past spring, however, when a Marine attorney assigned to the urination cases filed a complaint with the Defense Department inspector general accusing the commandant and his legal advisers of inappropriately seeking to influence their outcome. Clement’s legal team later exposed that Amos had stripped a three-star general of his authority to prosecute the accused after the general refused to throw them out of the service as Amos desired.
Clement’s hearing continues Wednesday here in Quantico. Dowd said he intends to call three senior Marines as character witnesses for the captain: Gen. John Kelly, the four-star commander of U.S. Southern Command; Col. Todd Desgrosseilliers, commanding officer of The Basic School; and Chief Warrant Officer 4 Christian Wade, a Marine weapons expert assigned to Quantico’s Weapons Training Battalion.
Following testimony and closing arguments, the three officers comprising the board will decide Clement’s fate. Those officers are: Col. Francis Donovan, director of the Expeditionary Warfare School in Quantico; Col. Harold Van Opdorp Jr., commanding officer of Quantico’s Officer Candidate School; and Col. Calvert Worth Jr., director of Enlisted Professional Military Education for the Marine Corps.