Sailors caught degrading their female shipmates online will be punished, said the four-star head of all Navy forces in the Pacific in a scathing message to his troops released overnight.

"Those who have until now thought they could behave this way with anonymity or without consequence will find out they are flat wrong," said Adm. Scott Swift. "Make no mistake, this is a war fighting issue and I intend to take full advantage of the opportunities provided to us by the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] to pursue these cases to a greater extent than may be possible in civil venues."

The message comes after a Navy Times investigation found that specific female sailors from more than a dozen commands had been targeted by online users seeking naked pictures of them on various message boards in dark corners of the internet. After Navy Times shared its findings, along with links to the posts, with the service, Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson issued a directive to his commanders to stamp out the behavior in the fleet.

Within hours, Swift released his message, strongly condemning the behavior and said it damaged the fleet.

"I see this behavior as 'insider threat' to our fleet's ability to be an effective fighting force," Swift said. "This is not who we are. If any sailor thinks that this behavior is somehow acceptable or excusable, they do not belong in our Navy. It goes beyond selfish or immature behavior —  it's destructive to our fleet."

The Navy Times investigation found women from all corners of the fleet being targeted, often with innocuous pictures lifted by users from Facebook and Instagram, and identifying the women in various ways by rank, job title, and even by name, on message threads subdivided by command. The posts would likely have come from other sailors or people who were closely familiar with personnel at specific commands.

The scandal that is engulfing the military began last weekend when a story published on the website The War Horse — then published March 4 via Reveal — exposed a private Facebook group called Marines United, which was used regularly to swap explicit photos of fellow female Marines. There were approximately 30,000 members in the group, which the service is working with Facebook and Google to shut down.

But in the wake of the Marines United discovery, reporters uncovered more sites where nude photos were being posted , sought and swapped, showing women from all the services had been targeted. 

Leaders are struggling with how to deal with the situation as it's become increasingly clear that finding anonymous cyber bullies in their ranks is difficult and would likely need victims to come forward and risk further bullying, a problem acknowledged by Marine Commandant Gen. Robert Neller in Senate testimony Tuesday.

"Part of this is, I think victims were afraid to come forward, because if they came forward, they were going to be attacked tenfold on social media again," he said. 

Further complicating matters is that in many cases posting another person's nude photos, even without permission, isn't always a crime. Swift said the problem will have to be solved on the deck plates, with leaders having conversations with their sailors.

"I call on the entire Pacific Fleet team to discuss this issue frankly with each other, recognize the importance of each member of our team and hold each other accountable for any behavior that does not make our fleet stronger."

The full text of Adm. Scott Swift's message to the fleet vowing to punish cyber bullying.

Photo Credit: Photo via command's Facebook page

David B. Larter was the naval warfare reporter for Defense News.

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