Military leaders pledge to halt nude photo scandal

US Senators grilled Navy and Marine Corps leaders on Tuesday about a private Facebook group that shared nude photos of female Marines online and made misogynistic comments about them.

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Marine Gen. Robert B. Neller, the commandant of the Marine Corps, and Acting Secretary Of The Navy Sean J. Stackley, right, wait to testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington on Tuesday.

Amid a nude photo-sharing scandal among current and former Marines, Marine Corps Commandant Robert Neller on Tuesday faced tough questions from US senators, vowing to combat misogynist culture within the service and calling on his fellow Marines to commit to the cause. 

Yet some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee were skeptical of the pledge, saying that the military hasn’t done enough to tackle years of sexual assault and harassment problems. 

The most recent scandal, which involves nearly 30,000 followers of a private Facebook group called “Marines United” sharing explicit images of female Marines online and making lewd and threatening comments about them, emerged on March 5 and has led to an investigation. In some posts, the female members’ personal information was identified, including name, rank, and location. 

"When you say to us it's got to be different, that rings hollow," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York said at the hearing, according to the Associated Press. "If we can't crack Facebook, how are we supposed to be able to confront Russian aggression and cyber-hacking throughout our military? It is a serious problem when we have members of our military denigrating female Marines who will give their life for this country in the way they have with no response from leadership."

Senator Gillibrand added that online harassment had become apparent as early as 2013, and victims have come forward, but military leaders haven’t put a stop to it.

"I don't have a good answer for you," General Neller said in response. "We've got to change, and that's on me."

Neller assured the senators that he will hold Marines accountable through any legal and other means possible, and appealed to members of the Marine Corps to be more inclusive of women. 

"I need you to ask yourselves, how much more do the females of our Corps have to do to be accepted?" Neller said. "What is it going to take for you to accept these Marines as Marines? I'm committed to making this right and I need all Marines equally committed. We all have to commit to getting rid of this perversion to our culture. Enough is enough."

However, his promise did not quell all senators’ doubts. In 2015, the Marines Corps was the only military service that asked women to be excluded from serving in certain frontline combat roles, arguing that mixed-gender units were less capable. The request was rejected by then-Defense Secretary Ash Carter. But the Marines are still the only armed service that separates men and women for portions of their recruit training. Senators pointed out that such debate is still divisive. 

"This committee has heard these kinds of statements before," Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D) of New Hampshire said. 

"It's hard to believe something is really going to be done," she said. "Why should we believe it's going to be different this time than it has in the past?"

The Naval Criminal Investigative Service, whose tip line has received more than 50 calls, has launched the only official investigation into the matter. Acting Naval Secretary Sean Stackley said the scandal could involve more websites. 

In the wake of the scandal, other branches of US military, including the Army, Navy, and Air Force, also said they were looking into reports, but victims had not yet come forward. 

Summoning representatives from all military services, the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel will hold a hearing on March 21 to discuss their social media policies and possible changes. 

This report includes material from the Associated Press and Reuters.

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