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Politics, privilege and promotion

Marine brass contradicted investigation; promoted commandant's son, internal documents show

May. 28, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
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At the conclusion of a successful scout sniper operation in Afghanistan’s Helmand province, Marine officers ordered personnel in the field to bring the remains of three dead insurgents back to base. Maj. James B. Conway and Maj. Edmund Clayton greeted a 7-ton truck carrying the body bags, unloaded them and inspected their contents.

The bodies were punctured with gunshot wounds, but nothing looked out of the ordinary considering the operation, Clayton observed. The officers sent the remains along to other Marines so biometric information could be collected for intelligence purposes, and they moved on to other work.

That description of events is contained in previously classified court testimony and sworn statements connected to the Marine Corps’ investigation into the July 27, 2011, incident, in which scout snipers with 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C., shot video of themselves urinating on those dead insurgents.

Neither officer is accused of wrongdoing, and both said they did not know Marines had soiled the dead men’s bodies.

The incident mushroomed into an international scandal in January 2012, after the unit returned from theater, when a video showing the scout snipers urinating on the bodies was posted on YouTube, the video-sharing website. A sweeping investigation of the battalion was conducted, and at least eight Marines have been disciplined as a result, with two courts-martial pending.

The case captured the attention of some of the Marine Corps’ most senior leaders.But descriptions of the events by Conway and Claytondo not matchthe description shared among top officers. In addition, an Inspector General complaint alleges that Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, along with officers and civilian lawyers close to the commandant, inappropriately sought to conceal evidence; influence who would be punished and how; and insulate Conway, the son of the Corps’ previous commandant, from the controversial case.

At its heart, the situation raises a fundamental question about fairness: If an officer with powerful family members is connected to a scandal, will he be treated the same as anyone else in the same position?

Friends in high places

Conway and Clayton made their statements to investigators within days of the video hitting YouTube. Buta May 31, 2012, position paper sent to Commandant Gen. Jim Amos and 10 other two-, three- and four-star generals by then-Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Paxton states that Conway, whose father is retired Gen. James T. Conway, had no contact with the scout snipers. That finding allowed the generals to cut him loose from administrative hold, clearing the way for his promotion to lieutenant colonel and a follow-on assignment as commander of 2nd Battalion, 3rd Marines, in Hawaii— even as careers languished for other Marines in Conway’s former battalion who, like Conway, were not facing charges.

“There are neither facts, evidence, nor opinions that these two officers were aware of the urination incident nor the photography of it,” wrote Paxton, who at the time oversaw 3/2 as commander of II Marine Expeditionary Force. He was promoted to four-star general in December and made assistant commandant, Amos’ No. 2 at Marine Corps headquarters.

“In addition,” Paxton continued, “the scope of their responsibilities, geographic location and battlefield circulation did not put them in contact with or have influence over the Scout Sniper Team.”

That’s where Paxton’s version of events deviates from Conway’s.

Conway’s Jan. 18, 2012, handwritten, signed statement to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service was obtained by Marine Corps Times on May 22 following publication of an investigation that detailed this and other allegations contained in a complaint filed by a Marine officer to the Defense Department Inspector General. Conway told investigators he was not aware the scout snipers had urinated on the insurgents, but that he watched the operation that day from a combat operations center in Helmand’s Musa Qala district. He took personal interest in the scout sniper platoon, and convinced the battalion commander, Lt. Col. Christopher Dixon, to expand its size before the unit deployed in order to enhance the battalion’s lethality, Conway told investigators.

Attempts to reach Conway were unsuccessful. He did not respond to requests for comment, but a Marine spokesman said Conway is aware of them.

Dixon, meanwhile, who was Conway’s battalion CO, has remained in limbo. Although further removed from the snipers than Conway at the time — Dixon was focusing on an entirely different area for much of the deployment — his promotion to colonel and his seat at a prestigious top-level school assignment with the Justice Department remain on hold pending conclusion of the remaining court cases.

He, too, declined to comment.

Marine officials declined todiscuss the disparity in how Conway and Dixon have been treated, citing a desire to “preserve the integrity of the investigations and to ensure fair and impartial legal proceedings,” according to Marine Corps headquarters in a prepared response to questions from Marine Corps Times.

The complaint

The IG complaint was filed by Maj. James Weirick, a judge advocate assigned to Marine Corps Combat Development Command in Quantico, Va., which has overseen the Corps’ prosecution of cases stemming from the urination video. Weirick alleges widespread wrongdoing, including efforts by Amos, or others acting on his behalf, to manipulate the legal processto ensure harsh punishments, and to protect the Corps from further embarrassment by ordering the illegal classification of videos and interviews related to the investigation.

His complaint also alleges Amos may have “engaged in selective prosecution in the case” as a favor to his predecessor as commandant,Conway’s father.

It’s a sensitive issue in the Corps, where there is a rich legacy of senior officers whose children go on to serve and, like their fathers, rise through the officer ranks. Prominent examples include the late Lt. Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak, Lt. Gen. Ron Christmas and Gen. Carl Mundy, the 30th commandant. In Krulak’s case, his son Charles became the 31st commandant.

Gen.Conway has two sons currently serving: Lt. Col. James Brandon Conway and Maj. Adam Scott Conway, operations officer at Marine Special Operations Regiment, out of Camp Lejeune. The retired commandant’s daughter, Samantha, is married to a Cobra helicopter pilot, according to a military news release. The older son goes by his middle name, Brandon, according to two Marines who know him.

As a staff judge advocate with Marine Corps Combat Development Command, Weirick provides legal advice to Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, its commanding general and the convening authority for the scout sniper cases. His complaint specifically names Amos and Gen. Joseph Dunford, who was assistant commandant until December and is now the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. It also names Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, the commandant’s top uniformed lawyer; Col. Joseph Bowe, his deputy staff judge advocate; and two civilian lawyers who have senior legal counsel positions with Amos, Robert Hogue and Peter Delorier.

“I do not bring this complaint lightly,” Weirick wrote before signing his complaint. “This has weighed on me for some time. I am sad for the Corps and the military-justice system.”

The investigation

The battalion deployed from February to August 2011, earning praise from the top commander in the region at the time, then-Maj. Gen. John Toolan, who was impressed bythe scout snipers’ effectiveness. They are credited with combining to kill at least 200 insurgents in Musa Qala and Now Zad, in part by pairing with Marines in M1A1 Abrams tanks and exploiting their powerful optics to identify insurgents at long ranges.

After the video came to light, the service launched an investigation headed by Lt. Gen. Steven Hummer, thencommander of Marine Corps Forces Reserve. Weirick’s IG complaint alleges the investigation, along with a number of other videos showing the scout snipers misbehaving, was classified in February 2012 without justification, as required by law. That occurred, the complaint says, despite protests by Mills’ legal advisersat Quantico.

Weirick says in the complaint that after Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon, deputy commandant for plans, policies and operations, signed a memorandum classifying the videos and investigation, he petitioned a classification authority outside the Marine Corps. Army Maj. Gen. Karl Horst, chief of staff at U.S. Central Command, reviewed the investigation and the videos and “properly declassified” them in June 2012, Weirick’s report claims.

Marine Corps Times independently obtained a number of the now-unclassified statements compiled during that investigation. They show that Dixon, Conway, Clayton and a number of other Marines in 3/2 were interviewed, and that many of them expressed embarrassment and surprise at the urination incident. They indicated that the snipers had been respected and viewed assquared-away.

Dixon told investigators that when he spent time with his scout snipers downrange, he did not have the sense they were losing professionalism, according to a summary of his sworn interview. Rather, they showed good judgment, maturity and discipline, he said. A number of the battalion’s leaders, including Conway, Sgt. Maj. Dennis Downing and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Anthony Penwell, the unit’s gunner, circulated the battlefield, he said, allowingthem opportunities to observe the scout sniper platoon.

After returning from Afghanistan — but before the video was published online — Conway received the Bronze Star for meritorious service during the deployment. His award citation credits him with performing “all duties of the Executive Officer in a superior fashion,” and overseeing operations in Musa Qala district while Dixon focused on neighboring Now Zad, where 3/2 Marines also operated.

“His greatest contribution was his ability to act as the Battalion Commander for extended periods and assume command and control of the Musa Qal’eh [Musa Qala] District, which encompasses two-thirds of the battalion’s combat power,” the citation said of Conway. “The result allowed the Battalion Commander to focus on the failing governance of Now Zad District in order to improve Afghan performance, preparing it for transition to full Afghan control.”

The urination video was shot in Sandala, a village in Musa Qala. Conway’s handwritten statement says he saw nothing unusual the day it was recorded.

“We did a cursory inspection and saw nothing out of the ordinary,” Conway’s statement says. “After this event, I did not hear of any desecration to the bodies, nor have I ever heard of such a thing on any operation 3/2 conducted.”

Clayton, the operations officer, told investigators he discussed the snipers’ operations with Dixon more and more as the deployment wore on, and that Downing considered them special. They had name and face recognition at the battalion level, especially as their number of kills increased, Clayton said. He declined to comment for this story, saying he didn’t want to compromise the investigation.

The brass

After the scandal erupted,dozens of Marines in the battalion had their promotions and follow-on assignments put on hold as the investigation unfolded, according to emails between general officers obtained by Marine Corps Times independent of Weirick’s complaint.

That caught the attention of senior leadership. An email from Paxton to Amos, to which he attached his May 2012 position paper, says the 3/2 cases came up at the Executive Offsite, a quarterly meeting that includes three- and four-star generals and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Mike Barrett. They recommended unanimously to “grant well supported exceptions” to Conway and another officer, then-1st Lt. Edward Leslie, who commanded the battalion’s 81mm mortar platoon, but not others in battalion leadership.

In his email, Paxton told the commandant “your guidance after the EOS was clear and it was communicated and was being executed.” It was written May 31, 2012, about a weekafter Conway’s name was published on a June 2012 officer promotion list. At the time, Conway was still under an administrative hold preventing his promotion.

Paxton appears apologetic in addressing Amos.

“In no way was there ever intent to deviate from your guidance or present a fait accompli on any individual or case,” Paxton’s email said. “... Per the recommendations proffered in the attachment please know that all of us are united and convinced that these [courses of action] are best for our Corps as an institution, for you as our Commandant, and for all individuals in the proper execution of due diligence and justice.”

Most of the Corps’ top officials are copied on the email, including Dunford, Hummer, Toolan, Ary, Hogue and Mills. Also copied were Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, whom Amos replaced as convening authority in the urination cases;Robert Milstead, deputy commandant for manpower and reserve affairs; now-retired Lt. Gen. Dennis Hejlik, then the commander of Marine Corps Forces Command; Maj. Gen. L. Walter Miller, who served under Paxton as commander of II MEF (Forward.); and Maj. Gen. Angela Salinas, director of the Manpower Management Division of Manpower and Reserve Affairs.

Paxton’sposition paper included a “Summary of CMC Action,” referring to the commandant of the Marine Corps, and detailed how each case would be handled. It left room for Amos to approve or disapprove, and to leave comments about each recommendation.

Ary responded days later, saying the commandant did not want to make himself part of the decision-making process. He wanted the necessary actions to be taken care of by Paxton and Mills, the convening authority in the ongoing criminal cases.

“No sweat; we’ll work through it,” Paxton responded. “Think I’m very clear on CMC intent.”■

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