Fresh out of a closed-door briefing with lawyers and military brass on a nude photo-sharing social media scandal that is roiling the Marines Corps, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee said he believes the thorny problems at the heart of the scandal have yet to be fully grasped by the service.
Speaking to reporters at the Capitol Thursday, Rep. Mac Thornberry, a Republican from Texas, said both the legal issues in prosecuting those who shared compromising photos without consent via social media, and the social issues at the root of the alleged behavior.
"I think it's a very complicated problem involving social media," he said. "One of the challenges is what the government can do to investigate cases like this. Just think for a second about all the controversy we've had about privacy of emails and web surfing and all of that sort of stuff. There are limits to what the government can do even in investigations."
The commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. Robert Neller, testified earlier this week that about 500 individuals were found to have accessed a Google Drive folder filled with naked and compromising images and identifying information of female service members, circulated on a Facebook page called Marines United.
On Thursday, lawmaker Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, said during a press conference that Naval Criminal Investigative Service has identified 700 active-duty Marines and 150 reservists who were members of the Marines United page, though it's not clear how many of them viewed and shared the illicit images.
Thornberry told Military.com he wasn't yet sure that additional laws or provisions were needed for satisfactory prosecution of offender in the scandal.
"I'm intentionally reserving judgment until we get further into the investigation and see what's happening," he said. "The lawyer talked about some of the potential provisions of the Uniform Code of Military Justice that someone could be prosecuted under for this type of behavior. If there is a gap somewhere, I suspect people will want to close it. I don't know yet."
Another challenge for the Marine Corps, he said, would be to change the culture that fostered such bad behavior on social media.
"I am not fully convinced that the Marines or the other services have fully got a handle on this matter," he said. "I admit it's a challenging, daunting issue and there are societal implications of this. We expect more out of members who have served in the military and they expect more out of each other, because their success on the battlefield depends on them being able to trust one another."
Thornberry said he was convinced that both Neller and Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green were willing to own the problem. On social media as in elsewhere in culture, he said, troops had to be held to a higher standard than the general population.
"Changing people's' social media habits is hard. Understanding their social media habits is hard," Thornberry said. "And yet we must, because this is a new dimension to many of our lives, and as I said it's eroding the trust that is essential for military cohesion. So it's got to be done."