RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
A disturbing video surfaced last year showing Marines in Afghanistan desecrating corpses, by urinating on dead Taliban fighters. The Marines involved were disciplined, but the story has taken a new turn. Defense lawyers, a Marine officer, and two dozen former military lawyers are claiming that a general, the Marines' top officer, interfered with the legal proceedings in an effort to ensure harsher penalties.
As NPR's Tom Bowman reports, the Pentagon and Congress have been asked to investigate.
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UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Yeah.
TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: In the video, four Marines are in full combat gear. They stand over the bloody Taliban dead, joking and laughing. Those images, taken July 2011, in Helmand province, Afghanistan, disgusted official Washington when they appeared on the Internet in early 2012.
General James Amos, the top Marine officer, featured it along with a few other cases of bad behavior during a worldwide tour of Marine bases last summer.
GENERAL JAMES AMOS: You know, you don't have to go back any further than six months to get a sense for some of the - what I call, shameful behavior by Marines that wear our cloth.
BOWMAN: In a written statement right after the video went public, Gen. Amos said the Corps would not rest until the allegations were resolved. So he appointed a senior officer, Lieutenant General Thomas Waldhauser, to investigate. What happened next is at the heart of the current controversy. According to legal papers, General Waldhauser says Amos told him he wanted those involved crushed and kicked out of the Marine Corps.
Waldhauser told General Amos the incident didn't deserve that kind of harsh action. Amos said he could appoint someone else to handle the cases. Waldhauser remembered the conversation as tense but professional. Just a few hours later, Amos removed Waldhauser from the case.
GARY SOLIS: It just smells so bad. I've never seen anything like this.
BOWMAN: Gary Solis, who became a Marine lawyer in 1971 and is now a law professor. He said the removal of the investigating general is a problem for Amos.
SOLIS: That apparently was done so he could get a better result. That is a result more in keeping with what he wanted to happen - he the commandant. And that's unlawful command influence.
BOWMAN: Unlawful command influence, it's often called the mortal enemy of military justice. And it means a senior officer improperly acts to influence those taking part in an independent judicial process. Among the rules: A commander may not order a subordinate to dispose of a case in a certain way.
General Amos declined to talk with NPR. But in a written statement, the Marines say that General Amos's comments to General Waldhauser could be perceived as possibly interfering with the cases. Amos had written a memo to Waldhauser saying exactly the same thing, explaining that he removed him from the job to avoid any quote, "potential issues," so Waldhauser was replaced.
Now the story has taken another turn. A Marine lawyer helping investigate the case, Major James Weirick, grew increasingly troubled. He believes his bosses were withholding information from the defense, including the details of General Waldhauser's removal. The issue: if information came to light that suggested General Amos had tried to influence the case, charges against the Marines in the video could get thrown out.
Weirick complained to his bosses and heard nothing. So in March of this year, he went to the Pentagon inspector general, alleging General Amos and his staff used unlawful command influence and suppressed evidence. Then in September, Major Weirick sent an email about the case to a lawyer who had worked for General Amos urging the lawyer to come clean about what he knew.
LEE THWEATT: He spoke truth to power. And there's a consequence for that, unfortunately, in this world. He's paying the price for that.
BOWMAN: Lee Thweatt is a former Marine lawyer and friend of Weirick. Weirick was removed from his job soon after sending that email.
THWEATT: He's been publicly demonized, professionally exiled. As recently as the last few weeks, rather than working in his capacity as a lawyer for the Marine Corps, he was assigned a task to help place water bottle stations for the route of the Marine Corps Marathon.
BOWMAN: A Marine spokesman says Weirick was removed from his job because he showed poor judgment in that email he sent and not because he filed an inspector general's complaint.
Twenty-seven retired military lawyers wrote to Congress last week, asking for an investigation into how Weirick was treated and how General Amos and his staff handled the cases involving the Marines in Afghanistan.
Congressional staffers tell NPR that a decision whether to investigate will come after the Pentagon inspector general reports.
In the end, none of those who urinated on the Taliban corpses or videotaped the incident was kicked out of the Marine Corps. Some are still on active duty.
Tom Bowman, NPR News, Washington.
MONTAGNE: And it is NPR News.