U.S. Senators grilled the Navy and the Marine Corps' top leaders on Tuesday amid a growing scandal involving a private Facebook group and its surreptitious distribution of explicit images of women in the armed forces — often with obscene, misogynist commentary.
"If we can't crack Facebook, how are we supposed to be able to confront Russian aggression and cyber hacking throughout our military?" Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand asked during a Senate Armed Services Committee Hearing.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service (NCIS) had started an investigation into the group, where explicit photos of female Marines and service members were being shared without the photographed person's consent. The group, called "Marine's United," had a link to a Google Drive folder containing the photos, which has since been removed. The group served as a community of current and former Marines requesting and submitting photos unbeknownst to the women in them. At this point, it is not known how many current or former service members were involved.
Gillibrand said online harassment had become evident as early as 2013 and military leaders were made aware of it but have still been unable to stop it.
"I don't have a good answer for you," the Commandant of the Marine Corps General Robert Neller said. "We've got to change, and that's on me."
Neller has vowed to hold those responsible for the photo sharing accountable and change the culture behind it.
The U.S. Code of Military Justice explicitly outlaws distribution of sexually explicit photos of others without their consent as an offense punishable by court-martial.
A former Marine, Thomas Brennan, blew the lid off the group and reported it to the Marine Corps.
"We are thankful that Thomas Brennan, a Marine veteran, notified the Marine Corps and NCIS about what he witnessed on the 'Marines United' page. It allowed us to take immediate action to have the explicit photos taken down and to prepare to support potential victims. We are exploring what actions should be taken to best address this form of harassment in the future," Marine Corps spokesman Capt. Ryan Alvis said in a statement.
Since Brennan has brought the scandal to light, he and his family have received death threats in return.
But the "Marines United" group was just the tip of the iceberg, as a number of new and additional pages and websites sharing explicit photos has been discovered this week after the discovery of the group went public. One website Anon-IB, which had gained publicity in the past in posting a number of explicit photos of celebrities without their consent, had a message board specifically dedicated to military personnel.
Aftermath: New Pages; Victims Come Forward
After the "Marines United" page was discovered, members on Facebook have moved to new pages to share and request the photos, including one named Marines United 2. The investigation has confirmed that there were nearly 30,000 followers of the secret Facebook group, sharing nearly 2,500 images. The additional discoveries have now casted the net wider, as members from every branch of the military have been involved over the years.
With the assistance of notable civil rights lawyer Gloria Allred, two victims in this scandal came forward and made statements regarding how this has affected their lives.
"I can tell you that this exact behavior leads to the normalization of sexual harassment and even sexual violence," said Erika Butner, 23, who served in the Marines for four years before leaving the service last June.
Butner said she learned months later that she was among numerous women from all branches of the military whose pictures were posted without permission to a shared digital drive and organized by name, rank and military base. In some cases, contact information was included, she said.
She was accompanied by Marisa Woytek, an active-duty Marine who said in a written statement that while she was "fully clothed and appropriately dressed" in the photos posted of her, those images drew comments suggestive of sexual violence.
Woytek told the New York Times the pictures were taken from her Instagram account without permission, and she was alerted by friends who sent her a screen shot. "I love the Marine Corps," she said, "but after seeing that, I wouldn't re-enlist."
The Marine Corps is continuing the investigation as new sites and groups have come to their attention. They have promised to investigate and punish those involved to the fullest extent. In 34 states, sharing private photos without someone's consent is a crime. Another worry for the Marine Corps, other than the despicable behavior of these group members, is that this will discourage women from feeling comfortable joining the armed services. The leadership of the various military branches have condemned this behavior and assured that they will put a stop to these groups as well as prosecute those involved.
Reuters material contributed to this report.