A congressional hearing to address military social media policies in the wake of a high-profile scandal involving Marines who shared female colleagues' nude photos online began with a statement of frustration from the panel's ranking member that the discussion was happening at all.
The military's uniformed personnel chiefs appeared before the House Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee Tuesday to discuss their services' responses to the scandal. But training and rules governing appropriate online behavior do not address the true problems behind the Facebook misconduct, said Rep. Jackie Speier.
"Framing the issue as military social media policies frankly misses the point," she said in a sternly worded opening statement. "No one has ever gone on Facebook, looked at non-consensually posted intimate photos, typed a rape threat, and then stopped and said, 'Oh, I better not make rape threats! That's against the social media policy!'"
The hearing on policy, Speier said, happened despite her requests to hear from the service chiefs directly on the cultural roots of the scandal. It was "appalling," she said, not only that the committee had framed the issue the way it did, but that it had not opted to hear from military victims of the illicit photo-sharing directly. The issue at hand now, she said, is how to end "this hatred and misogyny."
"This is about service members deliberately trying to degrade, humiliate, and threaten fellow service members," she said. "They encouraged stalking, distributed stolen intimate photos, and have reduced their comrades to a collection of body parts."
Speier, a Democrat from California, first brought the online harassment of women by male Marines and veterans on certain Facebook groups to the attention of then-commandant Gen. Jim Amos in 2013. While Amos told her at the time in a letter that he shared her indignation about the online behavior, she complained that then as now, the issue was framed as an internet technology problem, rather than a cultural issue.
"This cultural rot -- which has clearly regressed even further since 2013 -- harms our troops and our readiness," she said. "It is abundantly clear that this is not a few bad actors, but rather is a sort of cancer that has continued to spread and thrive in both the enlisted ranks and the officer corps. The collateral damage has been the countless women and men who have answered the call to serve their country and have been betrayed."
Despite accusations of past failures, the personnel chiefs testifying before the hearing emphasized their interest in appropriately punishing perpetrators of social media abuse, as well as providing protection and care for victims.
"We are all disturbed and hugely disappointed by the recent online conduct of some of our Marines," said Lt. Gen. Mark Brilakis, the Corps' deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs. "Every Marine who takes the oath to support and defend our Constitution, who puts on the uniform and who puts their life on the line to defend our way of life here at home, is provided and has earned the trust and respect of the American people. So too should they be given that same trust and respect by those of us in uniform. Any breach of that trust and respect within the ranks cannot be tolerated. We will be immediate, decisive, unceasing in fixing this problem."
Personnel chiefs for the Navy and Air Force said that their investigations had yet to turn up Facebook pages specific to their services that engaged in the kind of harassment and photo-sharing activities that allegedly took place on Marines United, the page at the heart of the Marine Corps scandal.
Maj. Gen. Jason Evans, director of military personnel management for the Army, said he is aware of a multi-service investigation into abusive posts by service members on the popular microblogging site Tumblr.
All services except the Army have set up task forces to address social media behavior and abuse in light of Marines United, the witnesses said. While only the Marine Corps issued a formal update to its social media policy in the wake of the scandal, all four services issued guidance to troops making clear what the expectations are for their online behavior.
Vice Adm. Robert Burke, chief of naval personnel, said the Navy has organized a senior leader working group to attack the culture that fostered the bad online behavior and root it out of the service.
To date, Naval Criminal Investigative Service officials have confirmed they've identified about 15 members of Marines United who were active-duty Navy, and multiple outlets have reported that sailors have been found to be involved in non-consensual photo-sharing on another site, AnonIB, in the wake of the scandal.
"The bad actors we've discovered have found a new home, underground," Burke said. "We will not tolerate their cowardice in the dark shadows of the internet. We will be relentless in exposing these perceived sanctuaries and reinforcing our expectation of sailors' conduct, whether in uniform, at home, or online."
Tony Kurta, under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness, acknowledged the problem behind the internet behavior is cultural, but added he is cautiously optimistic in light of the military's past success in addressing cultural ills and implementing discipline.
"Whether it's integration of the races, whether it's the rampant drug abuse we used to see in the '70s and '80s, whether it's the alcohol problems we've seen in the '70s and '80s, we've taken on some of those large issues, cultural issues, and had great success over time when we applied leadership," he said.