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Semper fi? Taliban desecration case ignites battle in top ranks of Marines

Commandant’s role questioned

- The Washington Times - Monday, March 17, 2014

The Marine Corps' discipline proceedings in the infamous desecration of Taliban corpses has churned up deep divisions among the top brass.

Two generals, one the commandant, are disputing each other's accounts of a crucial meeting.

Another four-star general, the leader of a regional combatant command, is saying the Corps should apologize for ruining the career of a decorated officer.

The last of eight cases reached a conclusion this month, with Navy Secretary Ray Mabus signing papers to honorably discharge Capt. James Clement. He was the executive officer of a company whose scout-snipers in 2011 urinated on the Taliban fighters they had killed. A video was posted on YouTube, embarrassing the Obama administration, whose top officials called for punishment.

Capt. Clement's defense team, led by civilian attorney John M. Dowd, revealed the first split among the top brass.

Tipped off by a Marine whistleblower who later found himself ostracized by Corps headquarters, Mr. Dowd and other attorneys procured a sworn statement from Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser. Gen. Waldhauser disclosed that in a one-on-one meeting, Marine Commandant Gen. James F. Amos ordered him to "crush" all desecration defendants and run them out of the Corps. He said he refused.

The order was unusual: Gen. Waldhauser, as the case overseer, or convening authority, was expected to dispose of each case impartially.

Gen. Amos later removed Gen. Waldhauser and appointed another convening authority. Gen. Amos' office did not disclose to defense attorneys why the change was made.

The new convening authority suddenly dropped the criminal charges against Capt. Clement as a trial date approached and referred the case to an administrative board of inquiry.

Defense attorneys believe that if the court-martial had gone forward, the military judge would have granted a request to compel the commandant to testify in public about his actions.

In February, Gen. Amos appeared on National Public Radio and made his first public statements on the Clement case. He denied ever telling Gen. Waldhauser to "crush" the defendants. This put him directly at odds with a three-star Marine general who now works on the Joint Staff, which works for the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, of which Gen. Amos is a member.

"He is now claiming that Lt. Gen. Waldhauser is lying under oath about a conversation that has gone unrebutted for a year," Mr. Dowd said.

Gen. Amos told NPR: "I have never, ever, said that I wanted them crushed and kicked out. I don't recall at all saying that. What I do recall is there was some motivation on my part — without getting into the exact matters of the meeting — there was some motivation on my part that I questioned some early decisions by the commander. And once I left that meeting, I went, 'OK. That probably wasn't the right thing to do [as it] relates to undue — what we call undue command influence, the influence that a commander, a senior commander can have on the junior commander.'

"And so immediately, to correct that, I moved that case to another three-star general, and then I stayed completely out of it."

'An official apology to him'

Defense attorneys obtained internal emails that show the commandant and his civilian legal adviser, Robert Hogue, stayed involved. For example, Gen. Amos expressed displeasure in an email to Gen. Waldhauser's successor on how he was handling the cases.

Asked on NPR whether he fired Gen. Waldhauser because he balked, Gen. Amos said, "I think that's absolutely specious. I think that — and I've kept my mouth shut for a year and a half — and I think that's absolutely specious. I mean, I can't speak for him, but I can speak for myself."

A spokesman for Gen. Waldhauser said he "does not have anything more to add on this issue."

Another top Marine has split with headquarters over how it treated Capt. Clements.

Gen. John Kelly, a four-star officer who heads U.S. Southern Command, came forward to criticize the prosecution of Capt. Clement, and thus Gen. Amos, who publicly called for punishing those linked to the urination incident.

Gen. Kelly testified on Capt. Clement's behalf at the board of inquiry last fall. He praised him as an officer and said he was being treated unfairly.

"I can't offer an official apology to him and his family, but I think at the end of this board, he should receive that from someone," Gen. Kelly testified, according to the Marine Corps Times.

The Marine Corps Times, which has reported extensively on the Clement case and Gen. Amos' involvement, found its copies banished from the front of military-run stores. The order came from Marine headquarters, the independent newspaper said.

Capt. Clement was charged with dereliction of duty for not better supervising the snipers. He had no knowledge of the urination incident.

The Corps punished eight Marines tied to the urination or the unit. The four enlisted Marines shown in the video pleaded guilty and were reduced in rank.

One scout-sniper, a staff sergeant, said a fellow Marine was killed that day by an improvised explosive device and they believe the Taliban they killed were responsible.

Defending the commandant

Still pending is the whistleblower case of Maj. James Weirick, a staff attorney at the Marine Corps Base at Quantico, Va. He informed defense attorneys about what he considered illegal command influence by Gen. Amos and his staff and filed complaints with the Pentagon inspector general.

After Maj. Weirick wrote an email to a potential witness urging him to tell the truth, Gen. Amos' staff had Maj. Weirick removed from his legal duties and ordered him to undergo a mental health exam, which he passed. Mr. Hogue said he feared Maj. Weirick might become another mass killer like Washington Navy Yard shooter Aaron Alexis.

The inspector general now is investigating whether Maj. Weirick is the victim of whistleblower retaliation. He has a strong ally in Rep. Walter B. Jones, North Carolina Republican, who personally attacked the commandant last week when he appeared before the House Committee on Armed Services on the 2015 budget.

Mr. Jones said he found Maj. Weirick to be "a man of integrity" and asked whether the commandant had reprimanded Mr. Hogue for his "slanderous comments comparing Maj. Weirick to the Navy Yard shooter."

"Sir, when I look at what has happened, both in the James Clement situation and having talked to Maj. Weirick on numerous occasions over the past five months, it is disappointing that the integrity of this Marine — and I would include Capt. James Clement as well — have had to take the attacks that have come out of the office, whether it's you or people around you, that they've done everything they could to destroy two — the integrity of two Marines," the congressman said.

Mr. Jones asked Gen. Amos for a written reply to a series of questions within six weeks.

Top Pentagon civilians, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, have vouched for Gen. Amos.

"A lot of committee members commended Gen. Amos for his service, and I want to say that it has been one of the high honors of my life to serve with Jim Amos as the commandant," Mr. Mabus, the Navy secretary, said after the hearing, according to the Marine Corps Times. "I think he is a man of absolute integrity. I think he has made some very hard and very good decisions for the Marine Corps. And he has my absolute, 100 percent support, backing and thanks for the results he has come out with in the United States Marine Corps."

On Friday, Mr. Dowd in a letter asked Mr. Mabus to reconsider his discharge of Capt. Clement. Mr. Dowd said Mr. Mabus did not follow Navy regulations when he failed to address "the unlawful command influence by the commandant of the Marine Corps in this proceedings."

"This secretary should recuse himself from this case which involved the gross misconduct of the commandant which he chose to ignore in this case," he wrote.

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