Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel was "deeply troubled" by photos purporting to show Marines burning and desecrating bodies in Iraq, while Pentagon officials cautioned Thursday that burning bodies is not necessarily a military offense.
"The secretary has seen the images" posted by the celebrity gossip site TMZ, and "he's deeply troubled by what he saw, no question about it," said Rear Adm. John Kirby, the Pentagon press secretary.
Hagel would consider disciplinary actions if the photos can be authenticated and the Marines depicted can be identified, Kirby said..
TMZ said that 41 photos, reportedly taken in 2004 in Iraq near Fallujah, had come into its possession and all had been shared with the Defense Department. TMZ published eight of the photos, saying that the rest were too "gruesome."
Desecrating corpses and taking photos would be a violation of military General Order 1B published by U.S. Central Command on prohibited activities by U.S. servicemembers in Iraq, Kirby said.
In part, General Order 1B barred "photographing or filming detainees or human casualties, as well as the possession, distribution, transfer or posting, whether electronically or physically, of visual images depicting detainees or human casualties, except as required for official duties."
The order stated that "human casualties are defined as dead, wounded or injured human beings, to include separated body parts, organs and biological material, resulting from either combat or non-combat activities."
However, criminal liability in the burning of bodies would depend upon the "intent" of those allegedly involved, said Army Col. Steve Warren, a Pentagon spokesman. Warren said that burning bodies was a last resort for the military, but might be ordered in an emergency for health and hygiene reasons.
Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Hagel would demand those responsible be prosecuted. His spokesman said the defense secretary would consider if disciplinary actions were warranted.