The leadership of the U.S. Marine Corps was put on notice Tuesday when several senators demanded to know how, exactly, no one spoke out against the online sexual harassment of female Marines across the country.
A Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing Tuesday dove into an ongoing military investigation into Marines United, a private Facebook page where members of the U.S. Marine Corps shared hundreds of what they called “wins” — sexually explicit photos of their female comrades. Users would often identify these women by name and rank and post sexual and violent comments about them.
The page had over 30,000 members stationed at military installations over the world, according to the Center for Investigative Reporting.
During the hearing Tuesday, almost every senator emphasized how much respect they hold for the U.S. Marine Corps. But many members of the committee also pointed out that this isn’t the first time the Corps has run into scandals over its male soldiers’ treatment of their female comrades. It’s also not the first time that leadership has promised to make a change.
“There’s no mystery that this has been going on for a very long time,” thundered New York Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand at the panel of military representatives. “When you say to us, ‘It’s go to to be different,’ that rings hollow …. Who has been held responsible? Have you actually investigated and found guilty anybody? If we can’t crack Facebook, how are we supposed to confront Russian aggression and cyberhacking throughout our military?”
“As you clearly and rightfully state, this is a problem with our culture,” Corps commandant General Robert B. Neller responded. “You’ve heard it before, but we’re going to have to change how we see ourselves and how we do, how we treat each other. That’s a lame answer but, ma’am, that’s the best I can tell you right now.”
Of all the military branches, the Marine Corps also has the highest rate of sexual assault, noted New Hampshire Democrat Sen. Jeanne Shaheen.
Since the scandal erupted Jan. 30, the Corps has created a taskforce to address and implement ways to reform the Marine culture and keep soldiers accountable. Among its first efforts is a revised social media code of conduct, issued Tuesday, which aims to clarify that posting sexually explicit images and comments of female Marines is not only inappropriate but also potentially criminal. Posting explicit photos without permission would break a military law against “indecent viewing, visual recording, and broadcasting,” Marine Corps spokesperson Capt. Ryan Avlis told the Marine Corps Times. That crime is punishable by up to seven years in military prison and dishonorable discharge.
Massachusetts Democrat Sen. Elizabeth Warren wondered about adding a specific military law against “revenge porn” — sexual photos posted without their subjects’ knowledge. And Virginia Democrat Sen. Tim Kaine suggested even taking these cases out of military court entirely. Instead, offenders would be tried in the civilian justice system.
The committee held a separate, closed hearing to discuss the findings of the military investigation and wouldn’t name those offenders in the public hearing. However, Neller and his fellow panel members, acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley and Sgt. Maj. Ronald Green, said only 500 of Marine United’s 30,000 members likely participated in photos sharing and commenting.
But a few senators stressed that they weren’t just concerned with the people who did the posting but also the leadership that either didn’t notice or turned a blind eye to participation.
Maine Independent Sen. Angus King mentioned that Thomas Brennan, the Marine veteran who first reported on Marines United, said that he never saw anyone stand up against the photos. “Not once on this website or on Marines United 2.0” — another Marines United copycat website — “did he see anybody say, ‘This isn’t what we’re going to do, this is wrong, this is improper, this is disrespectful,’” King said. “Not once. And that speaks to me of a culture that goes all the way down.”
The committee also did not address reports that the investigation into Marines United had widened to include multiple military services and websites. Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain, however, said that one of the difficulties facing the investigation was the fact that when one website was discovered, its users often just moved on to other sites.
Neller also repeated the request he made in a Facebook video shared last week about the scandal: that women who had been victimized come forward.
“I know you aren’t asking to be labeled as victims, for anyone’s pity,” he said, praising women’s accomplishments in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, though also acknowledging survivors risk reprisal for coming forward.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has also set up a hotline to collect tips, Stackley said. Sexual harassment survivors can also share their experiences through the group Not In My Marine Corps.
“I’ve got great trust in Marines. I’ve seen what they can do. I know their spirit. And I don’t believe — I may be wrong .… I pray to God I’m not — but I don’t believe this is indicative of the great majority of Marines who wear this uniform,” Neller told the committee. “So they’re going to solve this.”