Jan. 14 (Bloomberg) -- The Naval Criminal Investigative Service said it has interviewed the four U.S. Marines seen urinating on Afghan corpses in a video that spread globally and complicated U.S. talks with the Taliban.
Responding to a case that drew international condemnation, NCIS opened its probe on Jan. 11, “immediately after learning of the video’s existence,” Maryann Cummings, a spokeswoman, said yesterday in a written statement.
The incident raised tensions with Afghan leaders at a time when the U.S. is conducting talks with the Taliban. The video appears to show four Marines urinating on three Afghan corpses that are lying on the ground. An American voice can be heard saying, “Have a great day, buddy,” while another says, “He likes his shower.”
The men, whose names weren’t released, were part of a sniper unit from Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and served in Afghanistan last year from March to September, according to a Marine official who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the internal investigation. Two of the Marines have since left the unit, the official said.
“At this point, NCIS has identified and talked to the four Marines in the video,” all of whom are now in the U.S., Cummings said. The investigators are trying to determine who created and posted the video, while they conduct “computer forensic techniques on the video itself,” she said.
The deputy commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan issued an order to all coalition forces in the country to treat dead insurgents with “appropriate dignity and respect,” according to a copy of the order released yesterday and signed by Army Lieutenant General Curtis Scaparrotti.
The desecration of the dead violates the law of armed conflict “and can cause serious damage to relations with the Afghan government,” he said in the order.
Any mistreatment of the dead “will be promptly reported, fully investigated, and the appropriate actions taken,” he said.
The video comes as a blow to a Marine Corps that prides itself on a reputation for rectitude, said Jack Hoban, who was a Marine officer and now teaches ethics courses to Marines.
“We’re all universally disgusted by it and ashamed,” Hoban, the president of Resolution Group International LLC of Spring Lake, New Jersey, said in an interview.
While training teaches Marines to respect all life, “people under stress sometimes do things that are counter to their training and their ethics, particularly when they’re young,” he said.
U.S. officials condemned the incident and sought to repair the damage it may cause.
“It is absolutely inconsistent with American values, with the standards of behavior that we expect from our military personnel,” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in an appearance at the State Department Jan. 12.
The same day, Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the video “utterly deplorable” and spoke to Afghan President Hamid Karzai to relay his concern.
An incident that may have gone almost unnoticed in earlier wars can become an international flash point in a digital age, when videos spread across the Internet within hours, said Clay Shirky, who teaches social media in the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.
Shirky said the Marines probably made the video to show it to a few friends, never thinking that it would be distributed widely.
“This is the invisible audience problem,” Shirky said in an interview. “The minute it’s outside the initial circle of trust, you’ve lost control of it. Marines are not used to the idea that a video that’s only in the hands of other Marines may get out in the world.”
General James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, requested the investigation by the NCIS, along with an internal probe by a Marine general officer and senior attorney.
“Rest assured that the institution of the Marine Corps will not rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved,” Amos said in a written statement.
Karzai’s press office urged the U.S. military in a statement to apply “the most severe punishment” if Marines are found to have desecrated bodies.
Even as the investigation proceeded, both U.S. officials and the Taliban said they intend to continue talks as planned.
The Taliban said on Jan. 3 that it planned to open an office in Qatar for peace talks with the U.S. and its allies, marking the militant group’s first public step toward negotiations to end the decade-long war in Afghanistan. While a Taliban spokesman said the video won’t disrupt plans for negotiations, he portrayed it as typical American behavior.
“This video will not affect our negotiation in the future,” Zabihullah Mujahed, the spokesman, said in a phone interview from an undisclosed location. “Americans have always committed bigger crimes in which they dishonored Taliban and civilians. We’ve seen this video and we consider this the most disrespectful, inhuman and immoral act.”
The negotiations will remain focused on prisoner exchanges, he said. In a Jan. 12 statement, the Taliban said the talks don’t “mean a surrender from jihad” or acceptance of the Afghan constitution.
The U.S. has said it will hand over security responsibilities to the Afghan government in 2014.
The potential for damage to the U.S.’s standing in Afghanistan was reflected in comments from an Afghan tribal elder.
“Both Americans and Taliban are not human,” Zargul Nazari said in a telephone interview from Kabul. “Taliban cut our people’s hands and nose, and Americans urinate on their dead bodies. Do you think peace can come through urinating on the dead bodies?”
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