WASHINGTON -- Sen. Claire McCaskill, ranking Democrat for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, is calling for a probe by the inspector general into a website that claims to trade and share nude photos and videos of female service members.
McCaskill said Thursday that she heard of the site, hotmilitarygirls.com, through a researcher for a veterans organization and was alarmed at its claims.
The site appears to be operated out of Canada and shares suggestive photos and videos of women who are service members or their partners, the Missouri senator's office said.
"The exploitation of our brave women in uniform is repugnant, and the targeting of our service members' spouses is just as appalling," said McCaskill, who is also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. "There needs to be a thorough investigation of this website, and if wrongdoing is found, the perpetrators should be brought to justice."
Online trading of nude images of female service members isn't a new problem for the military.
In 2017, the Marine Corps fired two commanders and punished 33 other service members following the so-called "Marines United" photo-sharing scandal. The Marines were accused in March 2017 of sharing revealing and often explicit photographs of female Marines through a private Facebook group.
In April, Gen. Robert Neller, commandant of the Marines, told a Senate panel that the Corps has since enacted a series of reforms and was making progress reining in a culture of harassment.
The now-defunct Marines United Facebook page had an estimated 30,000 followers when it was uncovered. Active-duty and veteran Marines were exchanging nude photos of female Marines, making derogatory comments and even threats in some cases on the webpage.
"I think today you look at our Marine Corps …we are as diverse, as integrated and inclusive as we've ever been," Neller told the Senate Armed Services Committee in April.
On Thursday, Air Force Maj. Carla Gleason, a Pentagon spokeswoman, said while Pentagon officials were not specifically aware of the new website, the military has implemented policies designed to combat such concerns in the wake of the Marines United scandal. For example, a new armed forces harassment prevention and response policy was enacted in February of this year to establish a comprehensive, department-wide program on such matters that updated previous policies.
McCaskill said she is calling on the Pentagon's inspector general to investigate the site. In a letter addressed to Glenn Fine, the principal deputy inspector general at the Department of Defense, McCaskill said foreign entities might be using websites and Facebook pages to exploit service members, veterans and their families.
"Many of the women pictured are easily identifiable; their consent to be photographed and have the photos posted online is not evident and therefore cannot be guaranteed," McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, wrote in the letter to Fine. "I respectfully request that you evaluate whether there are exploitation concerns or violations of law, military regulations, or policies, associated with these sites and, if warranted, undertake a thorough investigation."
Dwrena K. Allen, a spokeswoman for the Defense Department's inspector general, confirmed Thursday that McCaskill's letter was received and the senator's request for an investigation was being reviewed.
McCaskill's office was alerted to the site by a researcher with Vietnam Veterans of America, Kris Goldsmith, who was recently featured in a Wall Street Journal story after he uncovered dozens of fake Facebook pages targeting military personnel and veterans.
Goldsmith said he came across two Facebook pages affiliated with the website in June and July 2017 and contacted the social media giant. Facebook promptly took down the pages, one of which had 17,000 followers, he said.
The social media pages and the website appeared to feature nude images of service members or their partners wearing U.S. military uniforms, Goldsmith said. That, along with identifiable details connected to the images, could let viewers trace the women to their homes, he said.
"Some stuff appears to be provided willingly and with consent, but I'm sure there are women on there who don't even know" they are on the site," said Goldsmith, who is the assistant director for policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America. And "it would be very easy for anyone to track them down and blackmail them."
The website features a messaging board to trade suggestive photos and videos of women who appear to be "embers or partners of "embers. It appears to be active and has been operating for more than 17 years.
Efforts to reach the website's administrators were not successful Thursday.
McCaskill said the site was registered Feb. 15, 2001 and changed internet protocol addresses 24 times and appears to operate now from a server in Montreal. It also shows account names, emblems, and clothing that appears to be linked to the U.S. military.
"Despite the domain being managed from Montreal, a majority of the women on this site appear to be in the U.S. military or have some relation to it," McCaskill wrote to Fine.
McCaskill has been a key figure in an ongoing Capitol Hill fight to boost assistance for victims of sexual violence in the military. Earlier this year, she called for the Department of Veterans Affairs to better assist veteran survivors of sexual assault and she was a sponsor of a 2017 law to better fend off "revenge porn" in the military. She was also involved in efforts to shutdown Backpage.com, a website known for trafficking images of vulnerable women and girls.
Stars and Stripes reporter Corey Dickstein contributed to this report