Top Enlisted Marine: Legal 'Gaps' in Addressing Online Harassment

The 18th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Ronald L. Green, delivers his testimony on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C., Feb. 26, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Melissa Marnell)
The 18th Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Ronald L. Green, delivers his testimony on Capitol Hill, Washington D.C., Feb. 26, 2016. (U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Melissa Marnell)

Four days after news broke that the U.S. military is conducting a wide-ranging investigation into active-duty Marines who circulated nude and compromising photos of their female colleagues without consent, the issue took center stage in a congressional hearing on military personnel.

In testimony before members of the House Appropriations Committee, Marine Corps Sgt. Maj. Ronald Green, the enlisted adviser to the commandant, expressed concern that the service's leaders do not have comprehensive legal tools to prosecute the online crimes for which dozens of Marines are being investigated.

"The places these individuals can go and hide have not been addressed in a legal manner; they absolutely have not," Green said.

Marine officials have said troops found to have participated in illicit photo-sharing and harassment could be charged with broadcasting of indecent recording, disrespect or conduct unbecoming, and general misconduct. This may not be enough, Green suggested.

"In the legal system, I'm waiting to see how they address this, because I guarantee there are some gaps and we're trying to get at this. We need the teeth to get at this," Green said. "There needs to be a direct law that addresses this type of activity in that cyber world. I don't think anybody can tell me the direct law that gets at this."

In addition, Green said, there may be an opportunity to explore the tools the Marine Corps has to police its own when they're online.

"We have a cyber command," he said. "If we had recognized this database, the question is, could our command have turned their assets and go into the world of private IP addresses and stuff like that on private American citizens?"

Both changes to law and investigative permissions would likely extend beyond the Marine Corps. The Uniform Code of Military Justice applies to all military services, and broader tools to monitor IP addresses may be federal in scope.

Green said he could not speak in-depth to immediate next steps the Marine Corps plans to take, citing the ongoing Naval Criminal Investigative Service investigation into the Marines United scandal.

A defense official told on Tuesday the Corps plans in the near future to launch a task force, led by a "very senior Marine" to address illicit online activity and outline steps the service must take to prevent similar behavior in the future.

"I can tell you, the Marine Corps writ large, we're going back to our policies, making sure we have the right, correct teeth in our policies," Green said. "We're educating our force, looking at this."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, ranking member of the subcommittee on military construction and veterans affairs, told Green she isn't satisfied with what she called a "muted response" to the troubling allegations that female troops are being harassed, stalked and victimized by their male counterparts.

"It doesn't send the right message to your women in the Marine Corps when there is as muted a reaction from your leadership as I certainly interpreted there was," she said. "This is just an extension of the sexual assault problem that is pervasive in the military and the environment in which too many women have to work with and live with."

Green said the Marine Corps is limited in what it could say as the investigation continues. He cited allegations of unlawful command influence that were leveled against then-Commandant Gen. Jim Amos in 2013 when he aggressively denounced sexual assault and the actions of snipers then facing prosecution for urinating on the corpses of enemy fighters in a war zone.

"We are outraged. There are some things we'd like to say. But … we have to be careful about what we say," he said.

Those who believe they are victims of the Marines United Facebook group or similar pages will have access to Marine Corps victims' legal counsel aid and all other resources offered to sexual assault survivors, Green said. But for those concerned that they might be targets for blackmail, he didn't have a clear answer, merely citing the ongoing investigation.

Green pushed back on Wasserman Schultz's comment that the Facebook investigation underscored a broader culture of sexual harassment in the service, saying his 14-year-old daughter is being courted by the Naval Academy and has expressed interest in the Marine Corps.

"I would not tell her not to come," he said.

-- Hope Hodge Seck can be reached at Follow her on Twitter at@HopeSeck.

Story Continues