Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller faced more than two hours of questioning on Tuesday from angry senators, who believe the new investigation into whether Marines shared nude photos of women without their consent and harassed the women online represents a cultural problem within the Corps.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., spent several minutes lambasting Neller for the Marine Corps' failure to protect women who have been targeted by members of the Marines United Facebook group and other websites.
"We have countless victims who have come forward — and they're not just being harassed online," Gillibrand said. "Once their name, face, where they are stationed is posted, do you think the harassment ends online? It doesn't. I spoke to a civilian yesterday who has continued to be harassed in her community because her ex-boyfriend exploited her online."
Gillibrand did not identify the woman, but Marine Corps Times was able to independently verify that she is Kelsie Stone, who has said she is sometimes afraid to leave her house because people come up to her at work and on the street to talk about revealing pictures, which she had sent confidentially to her former boyfriend, a Marine.
Senators pointed out that the Marine Corps has known for years about male Marines harassing and denigrating women online, yet the Corps has failed to curb such abusive behavior.
"Why should we believe that it's going to different this time than it's been in the past?" Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., asked.
Neller said the Marine Corps is going beyond the symptoms of cyberbullying and sexual assault to tackle the bigger cultural problem of making sure Marines understand that "all Marines are Marines."
Neller assured Shaheen that the Marine Corps will hold any Marines involved in illegal behavior accountable and let commanders know they can take actions when they see online harassment.
"This issue of denigration of women, objectification of women, misogyny — however you want to articulate it — or just bad behavior, is tied to the way that some group of male Marines look at women in the Marine Corps," Neller said. "I think we can fix that."
"Is it going to be different? It's got to be different, and that's my charge to myself," he added.
But Gillibrand said that response "rings hollow," and she called his other answers "unsatisfactory."
"Why does it have to be different — because you, all of the sudden, feel that it has to be different?" Gillibrand said. "Who has been held accountable? If we can't crack Facebook, how are we supposed to be able to confront Russian aggression and cyber hacking throughout our military?"
Neller replied calmly that he agreed the Marine Corps has a cultural problem and then added: "I'm responsible. I'm the commandant. I own this. You've heard it before, but we are going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we treat each other. That's a lame answer, but ma'am, that's the best I can tell you right now. We've got to change. And that's on me."
The Marine Corps will soon update its policy on social media to more directly address the issue of cyberbullying, and Neller issued a March 10 white paper ordering commanders to support victims of online harassment and raise awareness about the underlying causes of cyberbullying to "ultimately eliminate the conditions that allow this cancer to grow."
"We have lost trust with some of our Marines and we have to rebuild it," Neller wrote.
Maj. Gen. Loretta Reynolds, commander of U.S. Marine Corps Forces Cyberspace Command, attended the hearing. She will serve as an adviser to Neller and the Marine Corps' task force that is looking into underlying attitudes that has led to online harassment, said Marine Corps spokeswoman Capt. Ryan Alvis.
But Sen. Angus King, an Independent from Maine, raised questions about how effective the Marine Corps' response can be if the type of behavior toward women seen on Marines United is tacitly condoned within the ranks.
"You can have proclamations and issue letters and everything else, but if you've got lower ranking officers and non-commissioned officers who are winking and laughing and they deliver the statement with a little grin, that undermines the whole thing," King said. "This to me of a serious cultural problem that goes beyond the specifics of orders."
Neller agreed that the Marine Corps is struggling to instill in Marines the belief that they cannot be bystanders to abusive behavior.
"I was told once by a senior officer that the Marine Corps is built on discipline: It's a rock; it's the foundation of our house," Neller said. "Every time you walk by something you know that's wrong, it's the equivalent of taking a hammer and hitting that rock and putting a chip in it. If enough people walk by, pretty soon that thing is going to crack. We may be at that point."
King argued that any policy changes the Marine Corps makes will be moot unless the officers and NCOs accept that denigrating women is wrong. He added that Marines are mocking Neller and the entire Marine Corps leadership on a new website: Marines United 2.0.
"They're not getting the word, here," King said.
"Well, then we'll have to get the word to them," Neller replied.