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Marine Corps headquarters raps congressman critical of the commandant

As federal agency delves into whistle-blower's complaint, officials vent frustration

Feb. 7, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Gen. Jim Amos, left and Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C.
Gen. Jim Amos, left and Rep. Walter B. Jones, R-N.C. (Gannett Government Media Corp)
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Frustration is building at Marine Corps headquarters over a congressman’s aggressive support for a whistle-blower who has accused the commandant’s office of abusing its authority.

Rep. Walter Jones, a North Carolina Republican and member of the House Armed Services Committee, has taken an active interest in allegations the commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, took extraordinary measures to ensure Marines were punished for a video showing four scout snipers urinating on dead insurgents in Afghanistan. Those claims, made last year by Marine attorney Maj. James Weirick, have landed at the Information Security Oversight Office, the federal agency responsible for policy and oversight of the government’s security classification system.

In a Jan. 31 letter to ISOO Director John Fitzpatrick, Jones welcomes the agency’s involvement, saying the matter has “languished” for months at the Pentagon. The letter references a recent meeting between Fitzpatrick and Weirick, who filed complaints with the Defense Department and Navy Department alleging Amos and his top legal advisers sought to suppress evidence in the urination cases by improperly ordering witness interviews and other investigative materials to be classified.

“I have been working with Maj. Weirick on some of these cases and can tell you that this corruption, at the highest level of the USMC, is unlike anything I have witnessed during my 20 years in Congress,” Jones wrote to Fitzpatrick. “... I am confident you will come to the conclusion that the wrongful classification did take place, as well as several attempts to cover it up by those in the commandant’s office.”

ISOO answers to the president, independent of the Defense Department. Jones has asked Fitzpatrick for a briefing once ISOO investigates the matter further.

At Marine Corps headquarters, which has made few public remarks about the allegations surrounding Amos, a spokesman took aim at Jones for divulging his letter to Fitzpatrick. “The commandant has made it his practice to not share, neither publicly nor privately, official correspondence from his desk to fellow general officers or other senior government officials, in particular members of Congress,” said Col. Chris Hughes. “As such, he elects not to comment on Rep. Jones’ public disclosure of his personal letter, nor the motivation behind doing so.”

Jones, whose congressional district includes Camp Lejeune and the Corps’ two air stations in eastern North Carolina, is a staunch advocate for the service and individual Marines. In a Feb. 1 report by Foreign Policy magazine, which also covered Fitzpatrick’s meeting with Weirick, Hughes described Jones as a friend of the institution.

But over the years, the congressman has been unabashed in speaking out when he feels leadership can and should do better. In an interview with Marine Corps Times, Jones defended the decision to share his correspondence, saying that since September he’s written four letters to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus on behalf of Weirick and Capt. James Clement, who was found to have failed in his duty to supervise those who made the urination video. Clement’s defense team leveraged Weirick’s complaints in arguing that none of the eight Marines disciplined for the incident received a fair shake.

Mabus has not responded to Jones since November, the congressman said. “Nothing that we have sent to anyone have we called confidential,” Jones said. “It’s all public information. ... If a member of Congress is in a position to say this is wrong and does not say this is wrong, who will do it?”

What ISOO is examining

The urination video, which surfaced online in January 2012, is one of several the sniper team made during that 2011 patrol in Sandala, a district in Afghanistan’s Helmand province. As Marine Corps Times first reported last year, Weirick alleges the commandant’s senior civilian legal adviser, Robert Hogue, sought to classify these videos despite objections from Weirick, his supervisor and the Marine Corps’ in-house experts on information security.

At the time, Weirick was assigned to the military command overseeing prosecution of those connected to the videos. He and the others argued that, because the videos had been freely exchanged among Marines, it would be impossible to ensure the information was completely locked down.

The investigation was classified in February 2012 on authority of Lt. Gen. Richard Tryon, then the Marine Corps’ deputy commandant for Plans, Policies and Operations at the Pentagon. Weirick contends Tryon did so at the direction of Hogue and others close to the commandant, alleging in his complaint that it was a “coordinated effort to circumvent proper classification procedures.”

After Tryon’s decision, Weirick addressed his concerns with Marine Corps headquarters and then with information security specialists at U.S. Central Command. Tryon later contacted CENTCOM seeking a review of his decision. The Army two-star general overseeing it recommended most materials be declassified.

Hughes, the Corps’ spokesman, reiterated previous assertions that, given security concerns in Afghanistan when the urination video surfaced, classifying these materials was prudent. “During this time frame, tensions were running high in Afghanistan following a Koran burning and several civilian casualties,” he said. “The Marine Corps forwarded the materials for a classification review to USCENTCOM. Following this review, the majority of the images were made unclassified, and any information that remained classified was accessible for review by defense attorneys.”

What happens next

According to Weirick, Fitzpatrick agrees that by classifying the scout sniper investigation, officials put the accused Marines at a disadvantage and withheld information from the public without justification. Fitzpatrick said he intends to meet with a representative from the Navy to discuss the allegations further, Weirick added.

During their meeting, Weirick said, he and Fitzpatrick also discussed a new cluster of photographs published by the gossip website TMZ. Purportedly taken in Iraq in 2004, they appear to show Marines burning dead insurgents and posing with remains. They agreed ISOO also should look into the Marine Corps’ handling of these photos and decisions related to classification, Weirick said.

In a statement, Fitzpatrick acknowledged his office is responding to Weirick’s complaint, saying ISOO has the authority to conduct an administrative on-sight review of agencies’ classification programs to ensure compliance with the executive order governing them. If a review reveals the Marine Corps violated the executive order, Fitzpatrick could recommend corrective action or administrative sanctions. It would fall to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s office to ensure such steps were carried out, he said.

After their meeting, Weirick wrote Fitzpatrick urging ISOO to act decisively. “Accountability and discipline are of paramount importance within the Marine Corps,” his letter says. “In determining what action, if any, you may deem appropriate in this matter, your judgment should not be clouded by the milk of human kindness. Both the core values of the Marine Corps and the guidance of the commandant mandate that all Marines are held accountable for their actions.”

Weirick was removed from his staff judge advocate job in September after sending a confrontational email to one of the men named in his complaint. Officials at Marine Corps Headquarters say the email raised red flags in light of last year’s mass killing at the Washington Navy Yard. More than 25 retired Marine officers subsequently petitioned Congress to intercede, saying the action was retaliatory.

J. William Leonard, ISOO’s past director, has denounced the Corps’ classification decisions in the urination case. In a sworn statement obtained last year by Clement’s attorneys, Leonard said the investigation report in the sniper case “clearly does not meet the president’s standards for classification and thus represents an abuse of the classification system.”

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