WASHINGTON -- A day after a key senator demanded an official probe into a website that solicits nude photos and videos of female service members, the site has been disabled.
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, the ranking Democrat for the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, on Thursday called for the Defense Department's inspector general to investigate the website, hotmilitarygirls.com.
By Friday morning, the site appeared to be disabled with a posted message asking viewers to be patient as lawyers investigate and review the website.
"HMG is currently offline," the posting reads. "We are having our lawyers review the entire site to ensure it does not violate any laws due to a request for an investigation into the website. We STRONGLY disagree with any kind of revenge posting and have went [sic] to great lengths to delete anything close to this."
It also appears an affiliated website, hotmilitarygirls.net, is still in operation from a server in the Netherlands, said Kris Goldsmith, a research who tracks websites that target service members and veterans. Both the .com and .net versions of the site appear to have anonymous registrations through the internet domain company GoDaddy Inc., said Goldsmith, who is assistant director for policy and government affairs for Vietnam Veterans of America, or VVA.
Goldsmith alerted McCaskill's office about the hotmilitarygirls.com website, which was previously tied to two active Facebook pages -- one with about 17,000 followers. Facebook took down the pages during the summer after Goldsmith reported them to the social media giant.
The social media pages and the website appeared to feature nude images of service members or their partners wearing U.S. military uniforms. That, along with other identifiable details connected to the images could let viewers trace the women to their homes, Goldsmith said.
In August, Goldsmith reported the site to federal authorities.
"I recognize there is a First Amendment right to publish porn, but no one has a right to publish porn without the subject's permission," he said of the disabled site Friday.
Now, Goldsmith is concerned hotmilitarygirls.com is getting rid of any images that might have been obtained without consent before the site can be investigated.
"VVA is strong in support of Sen. McCaskill's demands for an investigation by [the Defense Department's inspector general]. I would hope that some experts are going in and taking all the evidence before the people behind it scrub it," Goldsmith said. "The page warning looks to me like ‘we have to scrub the site of evidence.'"
Immediate efforts to reach the website's administrators have not been successful.
The original site appeared to be operated out of Canada, McCaskill's office said Thursday.
McCaskill, who is also a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said the site was registered Feb. 15, 2001, changed internet protocol addresses 24 times and appears to operate now from a server in Montreal. She also said it shows account names, emblems, and clothing that appears to be linked to the U.S. military.
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."
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.
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.
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.
"The exploitation of our brave women in uniform is repugnant, and the targeting of our service members' spouses is just as appalling," McCaskill said. "There needs to be a thorough investigation of this website, and if wrongdoing is found, the perpetrators should be brought to justice."