Marine Corps Commandant Accused of Improper Classification

07.30.13 | 2 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos exercised “unlawful command influence” in an attempt to punish Marines who allegedly urinated on enemy corpses in Afghanistan in 2011, attorneys for the Marine defendants said.  And then Gen. Amos improperly classified information in an effort to conceal his own misconduct, the attorneys said.

“The evidence shows that the CMC [Commandant, Marine Corps] could not resist the temptation and decided to further the concealment of his unlawful intentions by ordering…, without proper authority or basis, the imposition of a secret classification upon the testimony and materials disclosed by the previously unclassified investigations of the alleged desecration cases,” defense attorneys said in a motion filed last week.

It’s a sordid story all around. What makes it interesting here is that a Marine Corps official warned in 2012 that the classification action was a mistake that could backfire against the Marine Corps if it ever became public.

“If this goes to the next level of administration or judicial action, there are some additional considerations that a lawyer, versed in classification issues, might be able to use to shoot holes in our whole process and bring the whole decision making process into question,” wrote William Potts in an internal email quoted in last week’s motion.

Improbably enough, he then cited the FAS Project on Government Secrecy and me (at page 19). A potential court-martial of the defendants would “spread us all over the media; would probably get Steven Aftergood, Project on Government Secrecy, involved…. He’d make us look silly if he supported a defense contention that the video was improperly classified.”

There is a creaky old saying to the effect that you should not do (or say or write or email) anything “if you wouldn’t want to see it on the front page of the Washington Post.” A similar principle might be applicable in the world of national security classification.  If you couldn’t justify the classification of information to an outside reviewer, then you probably shouldn’t classify it.

Unfortunately, in the normal course of business, there are few occasions on which any official is ever called upon to justify his classification action to an impartial, independent observer.  That’s just not the way the classification system is currently structured.  But it could be.  Increasing the number of opportunities for independently evaluating classification actions would quickly serve to improve the quality and legitimacy of classification activity.

For more background on the Marine Corps case, see these stories in Military Times and CNN.