RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
Now to a story that hinges on classified information sent by email. Not another story about Hillary Clinton - this is about a U.S. Marine named Jason Brezler. Four years ago, Brezler sent an urgent message to a fellow Marine in Afghanistan warning him about a threat. The warning was not heeded. And two weeks later, three U.S. troops were dead. Now, the Marine Corps is trying to kick Brezler out because the warning used classified information. NPR veterans correspondent Quil Lawrence has the story.
QUIL LAWRENCE, BYLINE: Jason Brezler deployed four times, including a tour of urban combat in Fallujah. In 2010, he was at a remote base in Helmand, Afghanistan. The mission was to support Afghan forces against the Taliban. Brezler says his biggest problem was a corrupt local police chief.
JASON BREZLER: Sarwar Jan - he was a threat to not only the Afghans but our own Marines.
LAWRENCE: Sarwar Jan was maybe linked to the Taliban. He was also a pedophile who preyed on local boys, something alarmingly common among Afghan warlords. Recently, there's been a debate about whether U.S. forces should tolerate Afghan allies who keep kids at their barracks. Back in 2010, there was no policy. Brezler couldn't fire Sarwar Jan, but he could kick him off the base.
BREZLER: We put Sarwar Jan on the next helicopter, and once he left, we could've probably had a parade the next day through the bazaar. The Afghans were absolutely elated.
LAWRENCE: Brezler went home. In the summer of 2012, he was in the Marine Reserves and working as a Brooklyn firefighter. On the side, he was getting a master's degree.
BREZLER: So I'm sitting at a conference table in Oklahoma taking, I believe, a public budgeting class, and I received an email, and the title was "Sarwar Jan Is Back" - all caps, exclamation point, exclamation point.
LAWRENCE: It was a forwarded request for information from a Marine in Helmand. Sarwar Jan was living on a U.S. base again. He'd brought a small group of underage Afghan boys to serve him there.
BREZLER: And my reaction, it was largely a visceral one. I was like, are you freaking kidding me?
LAWRENCE: Brezler searched his laptop - it was the same one he'd had with him in Helmand - and he found the dossier on Sarwar Jan. He hit reply all and send. That set off a chain of consequences but not the one Brezler intended.
MIKE BOWE: As soon as he sends it, and then the Marine on the other side in Afghanistan says, this is marked classified.
LAWRENCE: That's Jason Brezler's lawyer, Mike Bowe. He sat in on our interview.
BOWE: And so at the first break during class, he calls on his cellphone to his CO and he says, look, this is what just happened. So he self-reports right away like he's supposed to do.
BREZLER: My boss, my battalion commander, who at that point professionally I had known for several years - we had served in Fallujah together at the height of the insurgency - and he said, all right, it sounds like minor spillage.
BOWE: He explained it all to his CO. His CO told him to report it to the intelligence officer. They counseled him, said, OK, well, you know, you shouldn't have done that. The NCIS concluded within a few months that, yes, technically there was a violation of the rules, but no action needed to be taken.
LAWRENCE: Amid all the investigations into Brezler's handling of classified material, the warning he sent got lost. Seventeen days later in Helmand, one of Sarwar Jan's underaged servants grabbed an assault rifle and shot dead three unarmed Marines at the base gymnasium.
BREZLER: I don't know if I've ever been so angry and so sad at the same moment in my life. I mean, this is precisely what we didn't want to happen.
LAWRENCE: Brezler felt worse a few months later when he heard that the parents of one of the murdered Marines had no details about their son's death. They were asking help from their congressman, New York Republican Pete King.
BREZLER: And it was at that point that I said to myself this isn't OK. And that family probably don't even really know this attack was in the preventible range.
LAWRENCE: Brezler met with Congressman King, and King started pushing the issue, and that got some press. And that's when the U.S. Marine Corps got serious about investigating Jason Brezler. Here's Brezler's lawyer again.
BOWE: Almost a year had gone by, and he had moved on, the Marine Corps had moved on. And then a new story comes out that reveals that he's talking to Congressman King about these murders. And three days later, he is sent to a board of inquiry to be kicked out of the Marine Corps.
LAWRENCE: Bowe says there were hundreds of similar cases of spillage in the same year, and only two were punished. The inquiry was retaliation, he says, for embarrassing the Marine brass. A Pentagon inspector general report concluded it was not retaliation.
BREZLER: On day three of the hearing, the BOI, the board recommended that I be separated with an honorable discharge.
LAWRENCE: That's an honorable discharge - no real loss of benefits. Jason Brezler just wouldn't be a Marine anymore.
BREZLER: A huge punch in the gut. In light of my very strong desire to continue to serve and lead Marines, it didn't feel honorable.
LAWRENCE: A spokesman said the Marine Corps has confidence in legal and administrative processes against Jason Brezler but declined to comment further because the case is ongoing. Brezler sued in federal court to stay in the Marines. The case could go to trial this fall. Quil Lawrence, NPR News.
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