One service member could face a court-martial and another has been administratively discharged in connection with the Marines United investigations, said Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., questioned Neller about the latest investigation developments at Thursday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing.
Marine veteran Thomas Brennan first reported on March 4 that troops and vets among the 30,000-member Marines United Facebook group were sharing nude photos of female service members, veterans and civilians, and threatening some of the women in the pictures.
Since then, investigators have identified 65 suspects, of which 59 were referred to their commands for possible disciplinary or administrative action, Neller said on Thursday.
One suspect faces an Article 32 hearing to determine whether there is enough evidence to warrant a court-martial, said Neller, who did not specify whether the suspect is a Marine. Another service member has been administratively separated, five have received non-judicial punishment, and 20 have received adverse administrative actions and no action was taken in seven cases.
“This is not over,” Neller said.
But Gillibrand said Marine commanders are being too lenient on those accused of online misconduct by giving suspects non-judicial punishment instead of sending them to courts-martial.
“You know which photos are posted; you know where they came from; there are evidentiary trails to be made,” Gillibrand said. “So I wouldn’t say that it’s likely that these are cases where they couldn’t prove their case. I think it sends the wrong message. If you’re not taking these crimes seriously as an enormous disruption of good order and discipline, I fear that it’s not going to change behavior.”
Neller said he understands Gillibrand’s concerns and reiterated that the investigations are continuing. Earlier in the hearing, he told her that the Marine Corps had given commanders a guidebook explaining what options they have when investigating cases of online misconduct.
He also stressed that commanders are responsible for deciding which specific disciplinary or administrative actions to take, if warranted.
“You know that I cannot prescribe an action to be taken by a commander, because that would be considered undue command influence,” Neller said.
In 2014, an appellate judge overturned the 18-year prison sentence of a Marine convicted of rape after determining that jurors had been influenced by then-Commandant Gen. James Amos, who said in a speech that 80 percent of sexual assault accusations are legitimate. The Marine was later re-sentenced to nine years in prison.
However, the guidebook given to commanders does not go far enough in explaining how to deal with online misconduct, said former Marine Sgt. Erin Kirk-Cuomo, co-founder of the advocacy group Not In My Marine Corps, which aims to combat sexual assault and harassment in the military.
“There are no answers, directions, recommendations or guidelines given in the text,” Kirk-Cuomo told Marine Corps Times on Thursday. “What sort of guidebook doesn't provide actual guidance or ways to achieve an outcome?”
The fact that only one suspect faces an Article 32 and another has been administratively separated also seem to indicate the Marine Corps is not treating the alleged misconduct by Marines United members as seriously as it has vowed, she said.
“Twenty adverse admin actions is basically laughable in my opinion,” Kirk-Cuomo said. “That’s like telling Marines: 'Hey, here’s a little slap on the wrist; go have fun and then laugh about this with your buddies.' I would have expected some more harsh penalties for behavior like this.”