Commandant Gen. Jim Amos addresses Marines in July. Amos said recently that the service must educate its forces on the responsible use of the Internet and social media to prevent extremists from exploiting incidents for propaganda purposes. (Cpl. Sarah Dietz/Marine Corps)
WASHINGTON — In January 2012 a video showing Marines urinating on dead Taliban fighters exploded on the Internet, triggering waves of outrage and prompting fears that it would incite anti-American violence.
Less than two weeks later an Afghan soldier killed four French troops, citing the video as a motivation for the attack, according to Afghan authorities.
There have been abuses in combat as long as there have been wars. But commanders today are confronting the instantaneous dissemination of photos and videos, which can alter military campaigns as effectively as weapons and tactics.
Commanders said the urination video was only one segment of more than five hours of video taken during the patrol and they moved quickly in the days after the video appeared to classify the remainder in an effort to head off any further anti-American violence. The debate over the video has raised broader questions about how to handle such battlefield incidents in a time of instantaneous communications.
“The Constitution is not a suicide pact,” said James Mattis, a retired Marine four-star general now at the Hoover Institution. If a video is going to help the enemy and put troops at risk then commanders have a duty to try to prevent it from getting widely disseminated, he said.
When the video surfaced, Mattis headed up Central Command, which was responsible for operations in Afghanistan and throughout the Middle East.
It was a sensitive time. A month after the urination video appeared violent riots exploded in Afghanistan amid reports that NATO troops mistakenly burned a Koran at a military base.
Commanders knew how powerful images could be. In 2004, the photos of prisoner abuse emerging from Abu Ghraib in Iraq gave the insurgency there a significant lift.
Attorneys for some of the men accused in the urination case have objected to the move to classify other parts of the video, claiming it limited access to evidence that could help exonerate their clients.
A senior U.S. official, who asked not to be identified since he was not authorized to discuss the case, said the attorneys were given access to the videos, but the secret classification prevented it from going viral, and probably saved American lives. Most of the video has since been declassified.
A complaint about the classification was filed with the Information Security Oversight Office, according to the government agency’s director, John Fitzpatrick.
Fitzpatrick said his office is still reviewing the complaint and has not yet reached a conclusion, but generally only official government material or something created on behalf of the government can be properly classified.
Analysts point out that there are other ways to keep a potentially provocative tape from wide dissemination.
For example, Congress passed a law that gave the Defense Department special permission to withhold Abu Ghraib photos from public release, acknowledging that the public exposure could endanger Americans.
But in the Afghanistan case, commanders said they believed they had to act quickly before any additional videos surfaced in the Internet, putting American lives in jeopardy.
Commanders say incidents of abuse are anomalies but hand the enemy a propaganda advantage.
“Information today can be dangerously accessible and available,” the commandant of the Marine Corps, Gen. James Amos, said. “We have to recognize that and it has to be treated responsibly.”
Amos said the service will need to educate its forces on the responsible use of the Internet and social media in an effort to prevent extremists from exploiting incidents for propaganda purposes.
“There will be some changes,” Amos said. “There has to be. We’re going to have to somehow teach our Marines a sense of responsibility and accountability for this.”
Marines in Helmand province in Afghanistan are no longer allowed to carry personal cameras into the field unless they have permission. Helmet cams, which had been popular, are also largely banned. The Marine Corps has issued guidelines on using social media sites, such as Facebook.
Commanders said the danger posed by instant communications places a higher level of responsibility on young soldiers and Marines. Today there is less margin for error on the battlefield. A transgression on the battlefield can quickly turn into deadly riots or turn the tide of public opinion abroad.
“We’re going to have to deal more with this,” Mattis said. “It’s going to take a higher level of unit and individual discipline.”