WASHINGTON — Military investigators are contemplating felony criminal charges for an unspecified number of U.S. Marines who participated in a secretive social media group that metastasized into a distribution pipeline for sharing nude photos of their female coworkers and a sordid message board where some allegedly encouraged one another to commit rape.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service on Monday confirmed that the agency is working to determine whether felony charges are warranted. A spokesman, Ed Buice, declined to provide further details or disclose how many people are being investigated but said the probe, ongoing for weeks, could include active-duty personnel, military veterans and those unaffiliated with the military. NCIS routinely works with state and local law enforcement, Buice said.
Any military personnel found to have posted compromising photos without consent could be charged with "indecent viewing, visual recording or broadcasting," a violation of military law that carries a maximum sentence of seven years in prison, said Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Ryan Alvis.
On Capitol Hill, congressional leaders have demanded accountability for anyone who participated in what they called "degrading, dangerous" behavior. The top Republican and Democrat and on the House Armed Services Committee called on military leaders to ensure those who committed crimes are brought to justice, and that methodical steps are taken to care for the victims.
Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas who chairs the armed services committee, said he expects "appropriate consequences for those who willingly participated." The committee's minority leader, Rep. Adam Smith of Washington state, implored the Marine Corps' top general, Commandant Robert Neller, to "bring to justice any individuals who have broken the law and violated the rights of other service members."
Potentially hundreds of active-duty Marines and military veterans may be caught up in the scandal, made public Saturday night when journalist and Marine Corps veteran Thomas James Brennan published an explosive investigative pieceon the website Reveal. The images were shared via a secretive Facebook group called Marines Untied, which included nearly 30,000 members before it was disabled.
Brennan's report includes a lurid account detailing how some members allegedly advocated for one woman to be sexually assaulted. It suggests some victims were stalked and photographed in secret while others may have taken the compromising photos themselves, intending them to be private, only to be betrayed by whoever shared them online. The practice, known as "revenge porn," is illegal in many states, though some consider it a misdemeanor and others a felony.
Prosecuting military personnel accused of distributing nude photos without consent would be "relatively straightforward" under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, said Rachel VanLandingham, a retired Air Force officer and judge advocate who now teaches at Southwestern Law School in Los Angeles. So would prosecuting those who may have hacked social media accounts to steal women's photos, she said. Voyeurs alone could be a different story.
"It may be more difficult for the military to prosecute those who simply were members of this closed Facebook group and passively viewed photos," VanLandingham noted. "Officers won't be difficult to charge, ... as they are held to a higher standard and knew, or should have known, those photos were unauthorized. However, for prosecuting enlisted members ... for conduct that is service discrediting or prejudicial to good order and discipline for simply viewing the photos, the government will likely have to prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that they actually knew the photos were unauthorized.
"Perhaps this is easy to show based on the details under each photo and elsewhere on the site," she added, "but perhaps not."
Those found to have posted compromising photos without consent could face prison time and a dishonorable discharge, officials say.
Photo Credit: Marine Corps
The episode has exposed a division within the broader Marine Corps community, a proud institution that touts its fraternal nature and lifelong esprit de corps. The reaction to Brennan's reporting has been very passionate, with many denouncing the group's alleged actions while many others have sought to justify it.
Brennan, a Purple Heart recipient who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, has received death threats. He said he's working with law enforcement to identify their source.
It's unclear what will become of the Marines United group or the compromising images its members possess. Many times, such groups resurface with different names or migrate to other social media platforms, making them difficult to eliminate entirely. A Facebook spokesperson told Marine Corps Times that it actively encourages users to report inappropriate or threatening content.
Those who've defended Marines United say the forum was created as a means for combat troops and others to cope with post traumatic stress and to help prevent suicide. In social media posts following publication of Brennan's exposé, some members acknowledged that when nude photos and threatening comments were shared on the Facebook page, against the group's supposed code of conduct, violators were dealt with "in house."
Others have said they believe the women bear responsibility if they allowed themselves to be photographed or put on video, even if those images were intended to stay private. Critics blast that defense, saying it amounts to blaming the victim.
Marine Corps Times has been unable to reach the group's administrators. But one Marines United member, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the community has several people who've filled those roles on an alternating basis. And contrary to what other members have suggested, this one said the admins did little to prevent people from sharing nude photos, although he did witness some members express disapproval toward those who encouraged sexual violence.
He also suggested the group comprises mostly veterans, like him, and that the preponderance of nude photos were shared by those on active duty. Within a day of the story's publication, he said, the community lost about 5,000 members as fear and anger prompted people either to leave voluntarily or be expelled.
The group member who spoke with Marine Corps Times made at least two vulgar declarations directed at Brennan after his story was published Saturday, offering $500 to anyone in the Marines United community who could produce nude photos of the journalist's wife. Marine Corps Times viewed screenshots of the two threatening posts. When asked to explain it Monday, the group member said he became upset after Brennan contacted his girlfriend and now regrets the exchange.
Brennan said he contacted the group member's girlfriend to verify the man's identity as part of Brennan's effort to cooperate with law enforcement.
"I should've never done that," the group member said, acknowledging that he is now afraid there will legal consequences for having done so. "It was stupid."
At the Pentagon on Monday, a spokesman for Defense Secretary Jim Mattis said the retired Marine general was aware of these reports, which he described as "troubling," but wants to be "very careful not to say anything that can be seen as prejudicial or providing undue command influence." Mattis has spoken about the case with Marine Corps leaders and "trusts the Marine Corps will take all steps to maintain good order and discipline," said Navy Capt. Jeff Davis.
Military officials are encouraging victims to come forward and report suspected crimesto NCIS.
Andrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre
Jeff Schogol is a senior writer for Marine Corps Times. On Twitter: @JeffSchogol.
With additional reporting by Military Times' Shawn Snow. On Twitter: