Nearly two years after a video of U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of suspected Taliban fighters in Afghanistan became an Internet sensation, the case has triggered a rare and escalating fight over the way the military sought to punish the service members who were implicated.
Maj. James Weirick, a Marine lawyer assigned to the case, is taking on the chief of the Marine Corps, Gen. James F. Amos, alleging that the criminal investigation was compromised after the commandant demanded harsh punishment for the suspects before they had their day in court.
In response, Weirick says, the Marine Corps has retaliated by removing him from his job, seizing his personal weapons and ordering him to get a mental health evaluation — steps he and his supporters call character assassination.
This week, Weirick took the fight a step further, charging in a complaint filed with the agency that oversees classification of secrets that senior Marine Corps officials improperly classified material that could have assisted defense attorneys for the Marines under investigation.
The case could hardly come at a worse time for the military justice system, which has come under searing criticism from activists and lawmakers who contend that commanders often exert undue influence in criminal investigations, particularly those involving sexual assault.
The urination scandal was among the embarrassing episodes for the Marine Corps during the last decade of war, calling into question the military’s ability to adequately investigate war crimes. Its muddled handling comes as Afghan officials are debating whether to support keeping U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, which would require Kabul to extend immunity from prosecution by the Afghan authorities to U.S. forces that remain behind.
The military dropped its case against Capt. James V. Clement, the sole officer charged in the urination case in September, shortly before Weirick was to testify about his concerns. Three enlisted Marines who appear in the video have pleaded guilty to a range of charges that include wrongful possession of unauthorized photos of casualties and failure to report mistreatment of human casualties. Five other Marines received nonjudicial punishments.
With the criminal cases over, Weirick says he is now in a struggle for his career and livelihood.
“There won’t be a Weirick and an Amos in the Marine Corps at the end of this,” he said in an interview Friday night. “I’m not sure which one will remain, but it’s not clear we can both coexist.”
As the Defense Department inspector general reviews Weirick’s allegations, several retired Marine lawyers and a few members of Congress are rallying around the embattled officer.
“This has a foul odor at the highest level,” Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.), who has met with Weirick personally, said in an interview Friday. “This is an effort at the highest level to discredit a man of integrity.”
The Marine Corps says Weirick was not removed from his job in retaliation for being a whistleblower. The step was taken after Weirick sent an e-mail to a colleague he believed was under pressure to cover up lapses by senior officers, asking him to “come clean” about his actions in the probe.
Col. Sean Gibson, a Marine Corps spokesman, said in an e-mail that the message showed “poor judgment.” There was some question as to whether the language in the e-mail could be construed as threatening, according to military officials.
“The command is well aware of obligations to service members who have made protected communication to the Inspector General,” Gibson said. “The command has and will continue to meet these obligations.”
A spokesman for Amos said the commandant would not discuss the case.
“He respects the process by which the disputed issues will be sorted out, and he has full faith and confidence in his commanders to handle those matters within their purview,” said Lt. Col. David Nevers, the spokesman.
The saga began on January 2012, when a video of four Marines laughing as they urinated on the corpses of suspected insurgents was posted on YouTube. The video alarmed U.S. military officials in Afghanistan because it came shortly after deadly riots in the country sparked by the revelation that U.S. military personnel had burned Korans.
Weeks after the incident, Amos met with Lt. Gen. Thomas D. Waldhauser, who had been assigned to oversee the prosecution. In their conversation, Amos told Waldhauser that he wanted those responsible “crushed” and separated from the service, Waldhauser wrote in a court filing in July.
Waldhauser told Amos that he was considering a lesser form of punishment for some of the Marines. Amos soon replaced Waldhauser with another three-star general, saying he worried that their conversation could have been construed as undue command influence.
As the case moved forward, Weirick and other Marine officials protested when senior officers argued that the video and an investigative report ought to be classified in order to prevent leaks that could stoke further controversy in Afghanistan about the case.
“Tensions were running high in Afghanistan in the wake of the Koran burning and civilian casualties, posing serious operational and strategic threats,” Nevers said. “The decision to classify the materials was made in that crucial context.”
A Marine expert on classification expressed alarm at the time, writing in a March 14, 2012, e-mail to Weirick that the Marine Corps stood to look “like a box of buffoons” if the decisions to classify the video and report were litigated.
After Weirick started raising alarms about the way the case was being handled in the spring, he was reassigned. But he kept pushing the issue, he said, believing that the Marines under investigation deserved a fair proceeding. Beyond launching an inspector general’s probe, he said, the military has taken no action in response to his concerns, the major said.
This week, Weirick filed a complaint to the Information Security Oversight Office, which oversees classification procedures across the federal government. The former head of that office, J. William Leonard, endorsed his complaint.
“I am extremely concerned that the integrity of the classification system continues to be severely undermined by the complete absence of accountability in instances such as this clear abuse of classification authority,” he wrote in a letter to the agency’s directory, John P. Fitzpatrick.