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Marine who warned of insider attack threat facing career's end

Used unsecured network in effort to save lives

Aug. 25, 2013 - 06:00AM   |  
Enduring Freedom
Then-Capt. Jason Brezler meets with leaders in Now Zad, Afghanistan, in 2009. He faces the possible end of his career for passing classified information to deployed Marines about a police chief later connected to an insider attack. (Albert F. Hunt / Marine Corps)
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An insider attack that killed three Marines in Afghanistan last year is under new scrutiny as the U.S. Attorney’s Office in New York investigates the case and a congressman questions why an officer who warned about potential danger beforehand received a career-ending evaluation.

Staff Sgt. Scott Dickinson, 29, Cpl. Richard Rivera, 20, and Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley, 21, died Aug. 10, 2012, after an attacker opened fire on them with an assault rifle at a base gym. A fourth Marine, Staff Sgt. Cody Rhode, sustained five gunshot wounds, including one that shattered his elbow, according to a Marine Corps news release. They were all members of a police advisory team attached to 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, out of Camp Lejeune, N.C.

The incident at Forward Operating Base Delhi came amid a wave of insider attacks across Afghanistan and raised serious questions about the ease with which it occurred. The alleged shooter is a teenage boy named Aynoddin who worked for Sarwar Jan, an Afghan police commander, according to media reports. Marine Corps Times submitted a Freedom of Information Act request to the Corps in January seeking related documents, but nothing has been released.

The incident captured the interest of Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and prosecutors in New York, where Buckley was raised on Long Island. In a July 11 letter to Commandant Gen. Jim Amos, King wrote that before the shooting occurred, Maj. Jason Brezler received “an emergency request for information” from deployed Marines with Kilo Company, 3/8, asking for information about an Afghan police official “whom they believed posed a security risk.”

Brezler, a mobilized reserve Marine at the time, “immediately told his fellow Marines what he knew about the peril they faced,” and realized afterward that he passed “imminent threat” information classified as “NATO SECRET” over an unclassified computer network, King’s letter states. Brezler, a member of a New York City fire department, reported his mistake to his chain of command in the Corps, and subsequently received an adverse fitness report.

King says in his letter that it is “unfair for Maj. Brezler’s good-faith effort to warn his fellow Marines, of what sadly proved to be mortal danger, to derail his reserve career.”

“The Marines and the Fire Department need more good men such as Maj. Brezler, not less,” King wrote.

Brezler declined to comment for this story. In 2009 and 2010, he and his fellow Marines had problems with Jan while Brezler was deployed as a civil affairs officer attached to 3rd Battalion, 4th Marines, out of Twentynine Palms, Calif., according to the book “The Wrong War” by bestselling author Bing West.

The book, published in 2011, states that Marines in Now Zad worked to have Jan removed as the police chief. It describes him as the “protegé” of Sher Mohamed Akhuadzada, a former governor of Helmand province who is widely believed to have ties to the Taliban and commonly known as “SMA.” Asked by an Afghan elder to remove Jan from power, Brezler’s response is prickly.

“That f---er again,” he said, according to West’s book.

Jan re-emerged as the police chief in Garmser. The Washington Post reported last August that Aynoddin, then 15, was his “tea boy,” an unpaid personal assistant. The newspaper added that Marines in Garmser said Afghan villagers complained repeatedly that Jan invited Afghan boys to bases shared with U.S. forces for sex. Several Marines ordered Jan to stop, but he continued to disobey the rule, they told the Post. Jan denied the accusations.

FITREP fight

Brezler received an unobserved, adverse FITREP on March 4 from Col. Michael Lesavage, the former commanding officer of the 25th Marine Regiment. Obtained by Marine Corps Times, it states that Brezler was removed as the commander of Headquarters and Service Company, 2nd Battalion, 25th Marines, on Oct. 10, 2012. The major’s security clearance was suspended for the “reportable incident,” and eventually expired, it adds.

“This officer’s overall judgment and attention to duty, recently brought to light in conjunction with the loss of his clearance, have caused me to lose trust and confidence in his abilities,” Lesavage writes. The colonel adds that he completed the FITREP himself because Brezler’s 2/25 battalion commander, Lt. Col. Daniel Whisnant, was mobilized and deployed.

Brezler takes issue with several of those points in a rebuttal attached to his FITREP. While Lesavage contended that he completed the evaluation because Whisnant was deployed, the battalion commander actually was in the U.S. preparing for a deployment that began in January, Brezler writes. Brezler saw Whisnant in fall 2012, and exchanged professional correspondence with him numerous times, he said.

Brezler adds that he never spoke to Lesavage until Dec. 21, when the colonel told him over the phone that while he had “done some good things for the Corps,” his career was “done.” Brezler says in the rebuttal that while he was investigated, “I was asked to provide information and the immediacy and exigency of the situation dictated this course.”

In an Aug. 12 letter responding to King, Marine officials back Lesavage’s decision to issue Brezler an adverse FITREP. The letter, signed by Maj. M.S. Burns with the Marine Corps Office of Legislative Affairs, says Maj. Gen. James Lariviere, commanding general of 4th Marine Division, examined King’s concerns. The general agreed that Brezler deserved a bad FITREP, the letter says. It adds that it was within Lesavage’s discretion to write the evaluation because Brezler’s battalion commander had been activated Sept. 1, 2012, ahead of his deployment in 2013.

“The circumstances surrounding Major Brezler’s adverse FITREP are unfortunate; however, the issue was handled impartially and according to the orders and regulations that govern the Department of Defense and and the Armed Forces of the United States,” the letter to King states.

In a statement to Marine Corps Times, King made it clear he still isn’t happy.

“Jason Brezler chose the harder right over the easier wrong when he responded honestly to fellow Marines’ concerns about Sarwar Jan,” King said. “Why punish him for having the integrity and moral courage to warn about an imminent force protection threat? I hope he is not being retaliated against for blowing the whistle on Sarwar Jan’s criminal activities, which posed an insider threat that killed three Marines.”

Col. Francis Piccoli, a spokesman at Marine Corps Forces Reserve headquarters in New Orleans, declined to comment on Brezler’s FITREP or the investigation into him passing classified information. The colonel cited Navy Department policy that, to protect a subject’s right to privacy, prevents personnel from commenting on an investigation that “is not releasable in its entirety” through the Freedom of Information Act.

Standing trial?

The fight over Brezler’s future occurs as federal prosecutors investigate the case in conjunction with the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, King’s letter to the commandant states.

“This incident is under investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service and the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York,” King’s letter states. “Firefighter Brezler is voluntarily cooperating with the joint probe by the NCIS and U.S. Attorney.”

That raises the prospect that U.S. prosecutors may want to try the alleged shooter, Aynoddin, in the U.S. Doing so would be highly unusual, perhaps unprecedented — many individuals who launch insider attacks are killed in the process, and others quickly escape.

A spokesman for the U.S. Attorney’s Office said they do not comment on investigations that may be ongoing. Ed Buice, an NCIS spokesman, declined to comment, citing the ongoing nature of the investigation.

Mary Liz Grosetto, an aunt of Buckley’s, said she was told by an NCIS agent that the case has been handed off to U.S. attorneys. Her family wants the shooter brought to justice in the U.S. Grosetto also expressed disgust that Brezler has faced discipline from Marine officials for the manner in which he attempted to warn fellow Marines about the police chief.

“A tea boy would never do something so bold as to shoot four Marines without someone’s permission,” she said.

“They need to be honest and they need to be transparent,” she said. “This is disgraceful.”

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