- By Thomas E. RicksThomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military for the Washington Post from 2000 through 2008. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
By L. Lee Thweatt
Best Defense guest columnist
We recently saw General Amos relieve two of his commanders for failing to protect an airbase in Afghanistan. He was right to do so, and I’m sure it was difficult to deliver such news to his colleagues of so many years.
I wonder now, though, if General Amos has the self-discipline to hold himself accountable, as well, in a matter involving military justice and what certainly appears to be an orchestrated effort by the commandant and his top legal advisors to burn and discredit a Marine Corps officer for filing an inspector general’s complaint which exposes disturbing misconduct at the highest levels of the Marine Corps.
You are by now familiar with sad episode of Marines urinating on a dead Taliban member in Afghanistan. Those events were photographed and filmed. The misconduct involved was, of course, sent to senior Marine Corps commanders for handling and disposition. Whatever misjudgements committed by the Marines depicted in those images (and from the photos it appears there were many), they were still entitled to fair treatment and due process as the appropriate punishments were considered. After all, some charged with misconduct had been wounded in combat on multiple occasions, nonetheless re-enlisting to the dangerous and hard work asked of them and their brethren in faraway lands. Their commitment to one another continues to amaze. Because we know by now that Marines do not run across fields of fire to serve notions of baseball, apple pie, and the American flag. No sir, they do not. Not really. They do that most of all for one reason: for each other. That is why they fight: for each other. Even when they do things like this that we all wish they would not do.
My long-time friend and colleague Major James Weirick was assigned as a deputy staff judge advocate to help a lieutenant general navigate the disposition of these difficult cases. In the conduct of that job, to his chagrin, he ultimately observed and uncovered a pattern from the commandant and his senior lawyers revealing unlawful command influence, a failure to comply with legal discovery requirements, and preferential treatment given to the son of a former commandant while other Marines were placed on legal hold. Without valid legal justification, the commandant and his senior advisors refused to turn over documents establishing all of this misconduct. So, Major Weirick did what he was trained to do, and he spoke truth to power in order to compel them to comply with the rule of law. Specifically, he filed a complaint with the inspector general of the Department of Defense detailing their coordinated efforts to hide what had occurred. After the filing of that complaint, relevant documents were finally produced, although not without an effort by the commandant to first have the documents improperly and unlawfully characterized as “classified” to prevent their disclosure to inquiring criminal defense attorneys. Additionally, a lieutenant general has signed a sworn affidavit detailing that the commandant told him to “crush” the Marines involved in these desecration cases. For years, military appellate courts have deemed such directives from commanders as “unlawful command influence” decrying it as the “mortal enemy of military justice.” And as well they should. Nobody, not even and especially the commandant of the Marine Corps, is permitted to deprive a Marine of due process by seeking pre-determined outcomes in a military justice setting. No matter the conduct, fairness must rule the process. Otherwise, it is a sham.
As a reward for his moral courage, Major Weirick was relieved of his duties, and yesterday was compared by the commandant’s top civilian attorney (Robert Hogue) to the mentally unstable mass murderer who killed 12 people recently in the Washington Navy Yard. I have written the general counsel for the Department of the Navy in protest. My email to him has the hope of prompting what thus far has been completely absent from the commandant and his most senior legal advisors: accountability. The very thing all Marines are taught, and that which, on this issue, they have themselves avoided and worse, they have now improperly and wrongly assigned to someone else. It is shameful, and given the corrosive chilling effect it can have on the ability of junior officers across all disciplines to speak with candor to senior commanders, I hope it is something you will look into as you continue to hold military leaders accountable going forward. Because we all ought to expect that the commandant of the Marine Corps and his lawyers will serve the rule of law rather than trample upon it, and hang another Marine out to dry for doing the right thing.
L. Lee Thweatt is a former Marine Corps judge advocate, honorably discharged at the rank of captain, now in private law practice in Houston. While on active duty, he served as a trial counsel for various units within the 1st Marine Division at Camp Pendleton.