Tarnished Brass

The top Marine Corps general is unpopular with his troops, damaged on Capitol Hill, and under investigation in the Pentagon. Can he really still lead?

Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

Shortly before Gen. James Amos took over as the Marine Corps' top officer in 2010, he visited all seven of his surviving four-star predecessors, seeking their guidance and counsel on what was important to remember as the service's commandant. But it was a stark warning from one of them -- Gen. Carl Mundy, commandant from 1991 to 1995 -- that Amos recalled later in a room full of Marines at the legendary training grounds at Parris Island, S.C.

"If you fail to maintain the spiritual health of the Corps," Amos recalled Mundy saying, "you will have failed as the 35th commandant."

That anecdote is captured in a transcript of Amos's April 2012 speech at Parris Island. In it, the general called pointedly for Marines to do more to prevent sexual assault, hazing, domestic abuse, and other social ills. He added that Marines have a special characteristic that allows them to "make the right decision each and every time," even when it is unpopular or difficult.

Shortly before Gen. James Amos took over as the Marine Corps’ top officer in 2010, he visited all seven of his surviving four-star predecessors, seeking their guidance and counsel on what was important to remember as the service’s commandant. But it was a stark warning from one of them — Gen. Carl Mundy, commandant from 1991 to 1995 — that Amos recalled later in a room full of Marines at the legendary training grounds at Parris Island, S.C.

"If you fail to maintain the spiritual health of the Corps," Amos recalled Mundy saying, "you will have failed as the 35th commandant."

That anecdote is captured in a transcript of Amos’s April 2012 speech at Parris Island. In it, the general called pointedly for Marines to do more to prevent sexual assault, hazing, domestic abuse, and other social ills. He added that Marines have a special characteristic that allows them to "make the right decision each and every time," even when it is unpopular or difficult.

But with less than a year left in Amos’s tenure as commandant, it is his own ethics that have been called into question by everyone from rank-and-file troops to members of Congress. The accusations range from abuse of power, to illegally classifying evidence to cover up mistakes, to squashing Marines with the temerity to protest. The office of the commandant, typically revered by Marines across the world and many on Capitol Hill, remains under investigation by the Defense Department’s inspector general and is being battered by the media at a time when Amos must make the Marine Corps’ case to Congress on why it deserves money to buy new high-tech vehicles, preserve troop levels, and refurbish equipment that is battered after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The scrutiny has led to growing concern at the Pentagon about whether the commandant’s legacy can be salvaged, several Marine officers there told Foreign Policy. He also is seen as damaged by many on Capitol Hill, said one senior staff member for a Republican member of the House Armed Services Committee. Like many individuals for this story, the officers and staff member spoke on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue and not wanting to be perceived as crossing the commandant. The staff member said that because Amos has less than a year until he retires, there is little appetite in Congress to debate whether he can still do his job well, but the questions have been raised.

"Amos runs the risk of being a lame duck, and that’s something that would be unique for a commandant," the Republican staffer said. "I think a lot of people look at this, and where they see smoke, there’s fire. At this point, a pattern has developed, and I think people wonder whether he can effectively lead the Marine Corps."

Retired Maj. Gen. Melvin Spiese, who left the service in April 2013, told Foreign Policy he credits the commandant with leading the Marine Corps through a difficult time in which he canceled the $14 billion Expeditionary Fighting Vehicle — an amphibious vehicle that was years behind schedule — took ownership of the development of the next-generation F-35B fighter jet, and implemented the end of "don’t ask, don’t tell," the military’s former policy preventing gays from serving in the military openly.

But some of the recent allegations are troubling, even if they won’t cripple the Marine Corps as an institution, Spiese said.

"The recent stories in the news do not necessarily reflect on the institution," he told Foreign Policy. "I think these things are distractions, as opposed to things that are derailing the Marine Corps."

The commandant himself has been nearly silent on the controversy. He did not respond to an emailed interview request from Foreign Policy, and he waved off reporters waiting to speak to him Monday, Feb. 24, at the Pentagon after details in the fiscal 2015 budget were announced. A spokesman for Amos, Lt. Col. Dave Nevers, said the commandant will stay busy while the investigation runs its course.

"The professionals whose job it is to sort fact from supposition have not yet finished their task," Nevers told Foreign Policy. "In the meantime, the commandant will continue to do his duty by concentrating the minds of Marines on what has made the Corps so successful for 238 years: discipline, strict adherence to high standards, faithful obedience to orders, and concerned and engaged leadership."

Despite the chaos surrounding the commandant, the Marine Corps appears to have secured a major win in the fiscal 2015 budget. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced Monday that for fiscal 2015, at least, the Marine Corps’ future size will be 182,100 troops — smaller than its current 190,000 Marines, but larger than what some analysts had projected. Compare that with the Army, which will likely be cut to 440,000 soldiers, smaller than what Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, pressed for repeatedly.

And that’s far from the first challenge the commandant has taken on since taking over for retiring Gen. James Conway in October 2010. When Amos became the Marine Corps’ top officer, it was engaged in fierce combat in Afghanistan’s Helmand province after thousands of additional U.S. forces had deployed that year as part of President Barack Obama’s surge strategy. In one example of the difficulties, Amos protested in late 2010 when then-Defense Secretary Robert Gates considered pulling a 1,000-man unit — 3rd Battalion, 5th Marines — out of a notoriously violent Afghan district, Sangin, after insurgents killed or wounded dozens of its Marines within a matter of weeks, NPR reported. Doing so, Amos believed, would devastate the morale of the battalion.

The commandant also has managed a force that is shrinking from a peak of 202,100 Marines and is limiting the popular cash bonuses and other incentives troops had become accustomed to receiving. And then there were the policy changes that the White House and Defense Department said he was required to implement that were unpopular with many of his personnel. The demise of "don’t ask, don’t tell" was one contentious issue, but in January 2013, senior U.S. Pentagon officials dropped another bombshell, saying hundreds of thousands of previously male-only jobs in the armed forces would be opened to women by 2016, including some potential combat positions.

While the decision — still in the early stages of implementation — was greeted as a victory by some civil and women’s rights activists, it faced hostility in many corners of the Marine Corps, especially the all-male infantry. Some military jobs may be kept closed to women, and senior Marine Corps leaders still haven’t signaled whether there may eventually be female machine gunners, for example. Research is ongoing, with women attending infantry training on an experimental basis to gather data. (Full disclosure: It also already has led to one dust-up last spring in which Amos challenged this reporter, then with the independent Marine Corps Times, to attend infantry officer training at Quantico, Va., after Amos was angered by a headline that said two female officers had "flunk[ed]" the test. This reporter accepted, seeking a firsthand view of the training, and eventually reached an agreement with the commandant to cover the training as an embedded observer instead.)

Without a doubt, the most significant hit that Amos sustained in the last year lies in the service’s handling of legal cases that stemmed from an embarrassing viral video depicting Marine snipers urinating on dead Taliban fighters in Afghanistan on July 27, 2011. It was posted online in January 2012, creating an international uproar and drawing condemnations from Hillary Clinton and Leon Panetta, then U.S. secretary of state and defense, respectively. Three snipers who appear in the video pleaded guilty to a variety of charges, including wrongful possession of unauthorized photos of casualties. At least five other Marines received nonjudicial punishments.

When the "urination video" crisis first emerged, Amos promised a full investigation and named a well-respected three-star officer, Lt. Gen. Thomas Waldhauser, to serve as the convening authority overseeing the related cases. Once he was selected, the U.S. military’s justice system called for him to serve as a judge of sorts, with complete control over the legal proceedings. No one — including the commandant — is allowed to pressure a convening authority to make a certain ruling in a case.

But that happened in the sniper cases anyway, Waldhauser later alleged in a sworn statement submitted for one of the legal cases and first publicized in July by Marine Corps Times. Strikingly, Waldhauser said that Amos wanted the Marines involved "crushed" and thrown out of the Corps. Waldhauser demurred, planning a lesser form of punishment than the courts-martial Amos favored. In a tense conversation, Amos threatened to remove Waldhauser from the cases, the three-star general said — a clear violation of military justice, if true. A few days later, Amos did exactly that, putting another senior officer, Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, in charge.

Waldhauser’s statement corroborated aspects of a previous complaint filed in March 2013 with the Defense Department’s inspector general (IG) by Maj. James Weirick, a staff judge advocate at Quantico, Va., who had been working on the cases. He alleged that the commandant, or senior members of his staff, meddled illegally in the prosecution of the Marines involved to ensure harsh punishment and then sought to cover it up by illegally classifying information. Waldhauser’s statement also caught many Marines by surprise, given that few disputes between general officers ever go public.

"I think that tells you everything you need to know," one senior Marine officer said about Waldhauser’s decision. "The commandant’s office is usually above the fray, and three-stars don’t speak out against the commandant. It wasn’t only what [Waldhauser] said — it was the fact that he said it at all. To me, that’s the most telling thing."

Aspects of Weirick’s whistle-blower allegations remain under investigation by both the IG and an arm of the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, officials told Foreign Policy. In addition, the U.S. Information Security Oversight Office in Washington is examining whether information in the urination cases was illegally classified, Foreign Policy first reported Feb. 1. Any report on that issue would likely be addressed to Amos’s bosses, Defense Secretary Hagel and Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, along with the commandant, a spokesman for the oversight office told Foreign Policy. Both senior civilian officials have previously issued votes of confidence in Amos’s favor. Marine officials working for Amos have maintained that the Marine Corps classified videos and other details of the urination-video cases because they didn’t want harm to come to deployed U.S. forces.

The Marine Corps, meanwhile, removed Weirick from his job in September after he sent a sharply worded email to Peter Delorier, a civilian lawyer working for the service, urging him to "come to the side of the honest and truthful" and confess what he knew to authorities. The commandant’s top civilian attorney, Robert Hogue, told Marine Corps Times at the time that the "bizarre nature" of Weirick’s communications raised flags, especially after the Sept. 16 shooting massacre at the Navy Yard in Washington.

The Marine Corps also took out a military protective order, similar to a civilian restraining order, against Weirick, preventing him from coming with 500 feet of Delorier, Hogue, and three other Marine Corps lawyers, or contacting them. On Feb. 21, that order was extended through March 3, Foreign Policy has learned. Supporters of Weirick have protested his treatment, saying it defies federal laws protecting whistle-blowers from reprisal by government officials.

Through public affairs officials, the commandant declined for months to comment on the urination cases, first citing the open legal cases and then the open IG cases once court proceedings were over. That ended Feb. 17, when NPR aired an interview with the commandant in which he challenged the version of events that Waldhauser posited in his sworn statement.

"I have never, ever said that I wanted them crushed and kicked out," Amos told NPR. "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 is at relates to undue — what we call undue command influence, the influence that a commander, a senior commander can have on the junior commander."

The commandant’s harsh and fulsome rebuttal of Waldhauser’s statement has surprised some active-duty and retired Marines — including generals who served under Amos.

"Tom Waldhauser does not lie," Spiese, the recently retired two-star general, told Foreign Policy. "I have found him an officer of character."

A spokesman for Waldhauser declined to comment on Amos’s NPR interview, citing the open IG investigations. The commandant’s spokesman, Nevers, said Amos "did not set out to discuss this complicated issue in that forum" and stayed quiet until then out of respect "for the well-established processes by which this matter [is] to be resolved" — namely, the IG investigation and other related reviews.

Retired Brig. Gen. David Brahms, the Marine Corps’ top lawyer when he left the service in 1988, told Foreign Policy that he signed an October letter to Congress raising issues about the case and Weirick’s treatment because he has grave concerns about how military justice has been handled. As a retired Marine, he said he respects Amos and his office, but is deeply concerned about what has transpired.

"We won’t know that until an independent inquiry has been made, and as far as I know, no independent inquiry has been made," Brahms said. "That’s my point: Let’s sort it out. My hope is that Congress will, or some other independent agency will, take a hard look at this and sort out the facts and determine what went on so we can finally put this whole matter to rest and take whatever action is warranted."

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-Fl.) told Foreign Policy that he is concerned about the case against Amos in two regards. A former judge advocate general lawyer with the Army, Rooney said the allegations brought against the commandant are "extremely troubling" and merit continued research by the Defense Department IG. He also raised concerns about Amos’s recent comments to NPR, saying he hopes they do not "influence the outcome of the IG’s decision of whether or not to investigate" unlawful command influence. Rooney also stuck up for Weirick, raising questions about the Marine Corps removing him from his job.

"I am concerned that the treatment of Maj. Weirick following his IG complaint has resulted in unfair attacks on his character and work ethic and has been damaging to his career," Rooney, a member of the House Military Construction and Veterans Affairs Subcommittee, told Foreign Policy. "DOD whistle-blower protections exist, and were recently strengthened, to ensure than an independent outlet existed for members of the military to report unlawful practices without fear of reprisal. Undermining the criminal justice system in any way without consequence is not something anyone in uniform should tolerate."

A spokesman for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), a Marine Corps reservist, declined to comment on Amos’s standing on the Hill, but said the congressman also believes any allegations of unlawful command influence must be investigated.

"That process must also have integrity, and the Marine Corps must do whatever it can, going to whatever length it needs, to show that it can investigate itself and be objective in the process," said Hunter’s spokesman, Joe Kasper. "What’s unique about the Marine Corps is its small size and its ability to conduct business within relatively narrow confines. The Marine Corps is an institution that’s not beholden to one person, and Marines are committed to protecting the institution and its integrity."

Amos also has taken fire for the service’s short-lived effort to move Marine Corps Times away from the checkout aisles of stores on Marine Corps bases. The move was seen as retaliatory for the newspaper’s tough coverage of the IG investigation, and it overturned after it received widespread media coverage. The change was announced by Gen. John Paxton, the service’s assistant commandant, on Facebook, with the general saying the uproar "demonstrated a clear misunderstanding of intent."

But even that looks unlikely. Marine Corps Times reported Sunday that it had obtained emails showing that senior Marine Corps officials examined some level of ban of the newspaper last spring, apparently at the commandant’s behest.

"We are working a rather tight timeline to respond to CMC [commandant of the Marine Corps] on an item," Col. Chris Hughes, a Marine Corps spokesman, wrote to several other officials in an email, according to Marine Corps Times. "Every couple of years, we have a falling out with Marine Corps Times that warrants consideration of some level of ‘ban’ from our facilities. We believe that we may be close to such an impasse, and we want to present the Commandant with options. We believe it becomes a ‘good order and discipline’ issue if CMC believes he is being misrepresented by them. On such grounds, could he prohibit their sale in our [Marine Corps Community Services] facilities? Or, could he place them somewhere less prominent?"

Marine officials quickly said the issue was under review as it generated widespread media attention. Amos did not comment on the controversy until Wednesday and even then did not address whether he had sought options to reduce the newspaper’s presence on bases.

"There was never any intention to ban the Marine Corps Times from our exchanges. Period," Amos said in a statement provided by Nevers. "I’m sure I’m not the first commandant to be frustrated from time to time with coverage in the Marine Corps Times, and I’m probably not going to be the last. But I want to be clear. The Marine Corps Times will not be banned from our stores."

The commandant also has been criticized by rank-and-file troops for being out of touch with their culture. In one example, in 2011 he banned a time-honored tradition of allowing Marines to tightly roll the sleeves of their camouflage utility uniforms during summer months. The decision was widely unpopular and would have cost no money to reverse. But the commandant did not do so until Wednesday, as he faced continued criticism on a variety of fronts.

"As we have travelled throughout our Corps, many of you have let us know how important your identity as a Marine is to you and the Marines you lead," Amos and his senior enlisted advisor, Sgt. Maj. Mike Barrett, said in a message released on Facebook. "I can’t tell you how many times we have been asked the persistent question ‘Commandant, are we ever going to return to SLEEVES UP?’ I’ve thought a lot about this over the past 2 .5 years; I realize that it’s important to you. Sleeves up clearly and visually sets us apart."

Amos still has his defenders, however. Several current and retired general officers defended his character when approached by Foreign Policy, brushing aside any allegations. Others declined to comment, expressing concern about getting involved.

"The nation and Marine Corps are very blessed to have a man of his admirable personal character and a leader of his integrity and talent as the commandant of the Marine Corps during this time of challenge and change for the United States," said retired Maj. Gen. Tim Hanifen, who left the service last year.

Marine Sgt. Dakota Meyer, who in 2011 became the first living Marine in 38 years to receive the Medal of Honor, also has emphatically defended the commandant, saying troops who criticize Amos do not realize that he was forced to handle many of the unpopular issues he has addressed, including the integration of women in combat units and the drawdown. Meyer traveled with the commandant and his wife, Bonnie, to visit U.S. troops around Christmas, and Meyer said he has been struck both by the commandant’s deep affection for Marines and by how much criticism he takes from them. Meyer posted a Feb. 13 blog entry defending the commandant, saying the verbal daggers had gone far enough.

"Him and Mrs. Amos both, they just care so much about Marines," Meyer told Foreign Policy. "It’s insane to see he gets beat down, but at the end of the day, that’s what happens to good people."

With the award he possesses, Meyer has rock-star status with combat troops that few others do. But after posting his thoughts on his Facebook page, even he took criticism from Marines and veterans for defending the commandant. Some questioned whether he had been paid to write the post, while others said they respected Meyer’s right to his opinion, but were convinced Amos had crossed a line and could not be trusted.

"Having a Medal does not make you an authority on being a Marine," one commenter said on Meyer’s Facebook page. "Being a Marine has changed a lot over the years, especially now days [sic] when we needed a strong voice from the CMC; there was silence. I think he has failed his Corps, even betrayed her, and that is not taken lightly."

Meyer told Foreign Policy that he stands by his post, and he brushed aside criticism he received for sticking up for the commandant.

"If you’ve lost all respect for me for standing next to a man that I believe in with my whole heart and respect as a person and a leader, then I don’t want your respect anyways. I question whether you understand what the phrase ‘Semper Fidelis’ really means," Meyer said, referring to the Marine Corps’ "Always Faithful" motto.

Amid the controversy, Amos also has launched the "Reawakening," a broad effort that Marine officials say is designed to improve discipline, accountability, and ethics in the service while squashing drunken driving, sexual assault, and other problematic issues. But it calls for more Marines policing the barracks and the installation of security cameras there, among other initiatives, something that has raised questions among enlisted personnel about why they aren’t being trusted after making life-and-death decisions in Afghanistan.

Amos’s spokesman, Nevers, told Foreign Policy that the commandant and his top enlisted advisor, Barrett, have discussed the plan with thousands of Marine noncommissioned officers (NCOs) — sergeants and corporals, young enlisted leaders in the service — and after they hear about the rationale, "they get it."

"Far from suggesting a lack of trust in Marines, the Reawakening reflects deep faith and confidence by the commandant and sergeant major in Marine leaders at all levels, but especially in the NCOs who are the key to the effort," Nevers said.

Retired Gen. Charles Krulak, the commandant of the Marine Corps from 1995 to 1999, told Foreign Policy that being the head of the Marine Corps has always been a "difficult balancing act" that requires the ability to step back and assess what is best for the entire service. In Amos’s case, Krulak said, that is compounded by all of the transition as the Corps comes out of Afghanistan.

"I think that asking anybody to do that is asking a lot," Krulak said. "I think he’s working as hard as he can to maintain that balance correctly."

Krulak, now president of Birmingham-Southern College in Alabama, said he has not been closely following the specifics of the allegations that Amos and his staff face now. But he said that with many issues, there are times where the commandant will find himself at odds with much of the Marine Corps, especially when pushing his troops to remember "valor and values." Krulak recalled dealing with the 1997 scandal that erupted after a video emerged of Marines "blood-winging," a painful practice in which troops who qualified to use parachutes pinned "jump wing" insignias not on their uniforms, but on their bare chests.

"I got a lot of stick from Marines who said, ‘That’s who we are,’" Krulak said. "And my answer to them was, ‘That may have been — but it isn’t now.’"

But the irony of the commandant calling sharply and specifically for Marines to act ethically while he faces an IG investigation is not lost on rank-and-file Marines, one Marine sergeant major with more than 20 years in the Marine Corps told Foreign Policy.

"He’s pointing the finger in the wrong direction," the sergeant major said. "At this point, it’s pretty clear he’s an unethical guy and only is out to take care of himself."

Dan Lamothe is an award-winning military journalist and war correspondent. He has written for Marine Corps Times and the Military Times newspaper chain since 2008, traveling the world and writing extensively about the Afghanistan war both from Washington and the war zone. He also has reported from Norway, Spain, Germany, the Republic of Georgia and while underway with the U.S. Navy. Among his scoops, Lamothe reported exclusively in 2010 that the Marine Corps had recommended that Marine Cpl. Dakota Meyer receive the Medal of Honor. This year, he was part of a team of journalists that exposed senior Marine Corps leaders' questionable involvement in legal cases, and then covering it up. A Pentagon investigation is underway in those cases. Twitter: @DanLamothe

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