Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has entered the debate over the conduct of former Marine Commandant Gen. James Amos, vouching for the general’s ethics while saying his disputed official resume was not created by him but rather by a data center.
In an Oct. 15 letter to Rep. Walter B. Jones, Gen. Amos’ chief critic in Congress, Mr. Hagel also asserted the then-four-star general did not commit unlawful command influence as alleged in two cases, according to a copy obtained by The Washington Times.
As such, the defense secretary said, the Defense Department has certified Gen. Amos’ retirement at full rank.
Mr. Hagel’s letter is perhaps the final chapter in a legal and political battle that has been waged since 2013. The drama saw the Joint Chiefs member accused of unlawfully interfering in criminal cases, retaliating against a whistleblower and submitting an inaccurate resume to the Senate Committee on Armed Services when confirmed in 2010.
Mr. Jones, a Republican whose North Carolina district includes the Marine Corps’ storied Camp Lejeune, told The Washington Times that Mr. Hagel’s defense does not, in the congressman’s eyes, clear Gen. Amos of wrongdoing.
“To me, this is where I realize the world is falling apart,” Mr. Jones said. “Don’t get me wrong, I realize this is not the most important issue in the would. But it is an important issue from the standpoint of integrity and honesty.”
On his resume, Gen. Amos said that he had graduated from The Basic School, a six-month rigorous training regimen for young officers, at the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, in 1972. A former Marine lawyer, Lee Thweatt, investigated the claim, could find no evidence to support it and sent his findings to Congress.
Marine Corps public affairs responded that Gen. Amos, an aviator who switched from the Navy to the Marine Corps in 1972, had completed The Basic School via written correspondence in 1977.
Mr. Hagel explained the error by saying a Marine Corps manpower office, not Gen. Amos, prepared the resume. Mr. Hagel said the Pentagon inspector general “viewed a certificate reflecting that General Amos completed The Basic School extension course in 1977.”
Mr. Jones called this defense “laughable. I’ve filled out many, many resumes. You read it. You see anything wrong, you try to correct it, and [then] you sign it.”
Allegations of unlawful command influence, a violation of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, came in two venues.
Gen. Amos intervened in the infamous desecration case, which entailed a YouTube video of Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters, by meeting in private with the general overseeing the disciplinary action. He ordered him to “crush” the defendants and kick them out, according to the general who was the case’s convening authority.
Gen. Amos later realized he might have done something wrong and replaced the convening authority with a new general. Gen. Amos has denied using the word “crush.”
Mr. Hagel said Gen. Amos “eliminated the possibility of unlawful command influence by proactively assigning another general officer” as the overseer. The defense secretary said that cleared Gen. Amos of wrongdoing, a view also held by the Pentagon inspector general.
But defense attorneys say Gen. Amos’ staff concealed why the officer had been fired as a court-martial approached and also misled the news media. They argued they had a right to know if the commandant was meddling in the case. They only found out when a military judge authorized them to interview the first convening authority, a three-star general.
The other charge of unlawful command influence stemmed from the “Heritage Brief,” a series of lectures Gen. Amos delivered to troops across the country to rid the Corps of sexual misconduct. Defense lawyers have argued the speeches amounted to an order aimed at potential court-martial jurors — that they should convict defendants.
Mr. Hagel disagreed. In the case of Marine Staff Sgt. Stephen P. Howell, who was convicted of sexual misconduct, the defense secretary wrote that the majority on the Navy-Marine Corps Court of Criminal Appeals in Washington ruled that the “Heritage Brief” did not constitute unlawful command influence.
But there is more to the court’s opinion: First, it did overturn the conviction based on Gen. Amos’ firebrand speeches. The court ruled the lectures influenced jurors and thus created the “appearance” of unlawful command influence, which the military trial judge failed to rectify during jury selection.
“Compounding the appearance problem, [Gen. Amos] was still traveling on the Heritage Brief tour the week that the trial began, with both national and military media coverage of his remarks in full swing,” the court ruled.
Said Mr. Thweatt: “The court found at least the appearance of unlawful command influence. Military courts have long held that the appearance of UCI is just as harmful and dangerous as actual UCI, and as well they should. It is, after all, a system of justice at stake.”
Although not addressed in Mr. Hagel’s letter, Mr. Jones also openly accused Gen. Amos of retaliating against a whistleblower, Lt. Col. James Weirick.
Col. Weirick, a judge advocate, took the extraordinary step of filing inspector general complaints against the commandant for alleged unlawful command influence in the desecration prosecution of one officer.
After Col. Weirick sent a strongly worded email to a potential civilian witness, Gen. Amos’ staff took a series of steps: They removed him from his job, ordered a mental health evaluation (which he passed), took his licensed firearms and issued a protective order. One Marine official likened the situation to preventing another Washington Navy Yard massacre.
The inspector general cleared Gen. Amos of Col. Weirick’s charges but did not release its report on the desecration case.
Mr. Hagel’s two-page letter is a businesslike legal defense with neither praise nor criticism.
“In summary, the Inspector General has reviewed the senior official database and located no record of substantiated adverse information attributed to General Amos,” the defense secretary wrote.
At a change-of-command ceremony on Oct. 17 for the 36th commandant, Gen. Joseph Dunford, Mr. Hagel praised Gen. Amos: “As commandant, Jim brought a Marine aviator’s focus, discipline and creativity to the challenges facing the Corps at this unique time in our history.”
“From North Africa to the Middle East, when crisis strikes, the Marines are first responders, because General Amos made readiness and the health of the force his highest priority, ensuring that Marines meet their mission with the right tools at the right time and with the highest standards of integrity and discipline,” Mr. Hagel said.
Mr. Jones, the congressman, told Mr. Hagel in an Oct. 28 letter: “Respectfully, sir, I am in shock over the response and the lack of competence with which the Department of Defense and the USMC [have] handled this false information.”
He said the Pentagon has yet to provide him proof that Gen. Amos graduated form The Basic School via correspondence.
“Why can no one present me with a copy of his completed certificate?” he wrote. “Every other Marine I have asked has been able to provide me with a copy of theirs within 24 hours. Mr. Secretary, this whole situation has a foul odor.”
In signing the letter, Mr. Jones, a member of the House Committee on Armed Services, added a postscript: “Mr. Secretary, does the truth matter anymore?”
Asked if this issue is now closed, Mr. Jones said, “I really don’t know what options I have, to be honest with you.”
He said Col. Weirick, who filed the complaints as a major, was ultimately promoted.