Maj. Jason Brezler relaxes outside the hearing room during his administrative board of inquiry at Marine Forces Reserve Headquarters in New Orleans. (Hope Hodge Seck/Staff)
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NEW ORLEANS — Celebrated military author Bing West took the stand Wednesday to defend Maj. Jason Brezler, a decorated officer facing punitive actions that could end his career, saying he would trust Brezler with “my life, my savings, and my family.”
West was among a high-profile lineup of witnesses who spoke in defense of Brezler, a Marine Reserve officer and New York City firefighter who is accused of substandard conduct for bringing 107 classified documents back from the war zone on a personal hard drive and, several years later, sending one of them over an insecure network to a Marine colleague in Afghanistan.
Defenders of Brezler say he was trying to warn fellow officers of a potentially deadly insider threat in the person of a corrupt Afghan police officer, Sarwar Jan, and inadvertently violated classification guidelines to do so.
On Tuesday, the first day of an administrative board of inquiry hearing here at Marine Forces Reserve Headquarters, the Marine attorney prosecuting Brezler argued that he kept the material intentionally to inform a book he was writing, saying he had a manuscript with the working title “Rebirth of Apocalypse Now Zad” that contained a paragraph of classified information taken from one of the documents. Two Naval Criminal Investigative Service agents and a Marine intelligence officer testified in a closed session about the NCIS investigation into Brezler’s actions and what documents had been found on his hard drive.
But the nine witnesses who testified in Brezler’s defense on Wednesday, including officers in his chain of command, said Brezler’s moral character and integrity put his actions in a different light.
West, a former assistant secretary of defense who embeds frequently in combat zones, related how during one 2010 embed in Now Zad, Afghanistan, he had seen Brezler intervene to save a young Afghan boy who was being used as a sex slave, doing so in a way that would allow the boy to avoid being shamed by his family or community.
“He had no reason except that he was morally outraged and he believed he had the power to stop something that was morally wrong,” West said.
Other officers called to the stand testified that Brezler had been instrumental in bringing order and stability to Now Zad, a ghost town riddled with improvised explosive devices and Taliban fighters, and known for sending U.S. troops home as double amputees. According to testimony, Brezler went beyond his civil affairs duties, organizing drives to bring school supplies to Afghan children and having Marines in his unit better themselves by reading books and delivering book reports to each other. Brezler also helped to have Jan fired and removed from the Marines’ outpost in Now Zad.
Rene Brown, a Gold Star wife whose husband, Sgt. Bill Cahir, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009, said that Brezler had traveled to Dover Air Force Base, Del., to be with the family when Cahir’s body came home, and had been a constant supporting presence in the weeks that followed.
“I know a lot of Marines who I have met through Bill. Jason is among the finest, if not the finest Marine and man that I know,” she said. “I view him as a role model for me; I view him as a role model for my children.”
John Kael Weston, a former State Department official who met Brezler in Now Zad, said Brezler demonstrated the exceptional qualities he had seen in four-star generals.
“Let’s put it this way: If we were ever going to a crappy war zone situation, he’s the one I would want,” Weston said. “He would be one, and Gen. (Joseph) Dunford would be another.”
Witnesses also said documents in war zones tend to be overclassified, putting Brezler’s alleged violation in context.
West said he was once told that the Marines’ rules of engagement were classified as secret.
“How could you have classified rules of engagement that you’re giving out to 100,000 troops?” he said.
Brezler came under investigation in 2012, when he emailed a classified document, which contained information about Jan’s alleged child sex abuse and Taliban ties, to Marine officers in Afghanistan, after he learned from one of the officers that Jan had gained access to another base, Forward Operating Base Delhi. His defense attorneys, Maj. Amelia Kays and Kevin Carroll, who are representing Brezler pro bono, say Brezler quickly reported himself after the officers raised alarms about what he had done, and cooperated fully with a Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe that followed.
The commander of the unit Brezler was attached to in Now Zad said he understood why Brezler would quickly fire off the document about Jan from his unclassified email account if he believed it would help deployed Marines deal with an emerging threat.
“If he’s not giving up that information, then in my mind he’s liable,” Lt. Col. Martin Wetterauer said.
On Aug. 10, 2012, 17 days after Brezler sent the email, one of Jan’s “tea boys” stole a rifle and killed three Marines aboard FOB Delhi.
On Thursday, Brezler will testify in his own defense before both sides deliver their closing arguments. A panel of three senior Marine officers will then make a recommendation about whether to discharge Brezler or keep him in the Corps.