NORFOLK, Va. (Navy Times) -- The Navy is now knee-deep in the nude online photo-sharing scandal that started with the Marine Corps last week and senior admirals are acting quickly to crack down on a problem that is starting to look like a cyber variation of the Navy's notorious 1991 Tailhook debacle.
Evidence has emerged that female sailors stationed across the globe are being targeted by anonymous online voyeurs seeking, collecting and distributing naked photos that are typically shared confidentially between couples involved in long-distance relationships.
Women from more than a dozen Navy commands were specifically targeted by online users seeking nude photos — likely other sailors or people closely familiar with their command personnel — according to a Navy Times investigation.
A review of message boards such as AnonIB, as first reported on by Business Insider, as well as 4Chan and Tumblr, reveals a network where users seeking nude photos target specific service members, often with innocuous Facebook and Instagram photos asking for “wins,” a code for naked pictures. The threads are often subdivided by command. Users will seek specific sailors, often identified by picture, job title, rank and even name, and in many cases nude photos are subsequently posted.
The sites — along with the sailors, veterans and civilians who operate them — make up an shadowy web of file sharing that has proven to be a game of whack-a-mole for investigators. As soon as one cache of nude photos is discovered, users migrate using obscure message boards, updating one another as to which new dark corner of the Internet contains the photos.
The female sailors being targeted on the publicly accessible sites come from all corners of the Navy, with their commands including the carriers Eisenhower, Truman, Roosevelt and Reagan; the destroyer Cole; Naval Base San Diego, Naval Station Norfolk, Naval Air Stations Oceana, North Island and Pensacola; the hospital ship Mercy, Walter Reid Medical Center; and the U.S. Naval Academy.
The staggering list of command locations was compiled during a two-day Navy Times investigation, but is likely not comprehensive.
After Navy Times shared the findings with the Navy, the Navy’s top officer issued a blistering memo to all his commanders insisting that the behavior be stamped out in the fleet.
“Team, we have a problem and we need to solve it,” wrote Adm. John Richardson, chief of naval operations. “Really solve it — not put a band-aid on it, not whitewash over it, not look the other way.
“The discovery of on-line sites that degrade the female members of our team has shined a light on the fact that this problem persists. But we get reminders of it every day, when we disrespect women by crude jokes, wisecracks, sexual harassment, and in its worst manifestation, sexual assault — a serious violent crime. Despite a steady effort to get after this, we’re not making progress.”
The Navy has to act as a team to defeat its adversaries, Richardson said, but the behavior sets the whole fleet back. Richardson dismissed suggestions that the behavior was only a small fraction of the population and said sailors who don’t respect their shipmates need to leave.
"I’ve heard hundreds of times that 'these actions are being taken by only a small minority.'" Richardson wrote. "Prove that. If that’s true, then the vast majority of men and women need to stand up and smother this behavior. To become intolerant. To act to put a stop to this. And if you’re one of that minority that just won’t get it, then it’s time for you to leave the Navy."
It is the responsibility of commanding officers, division officers and the chief’s mess to confront the issue with sailors head on, Richardson continued.
“Make it clear that individuals who can't live up to our professional standards in competence and character are not welcome in our Navy. Make it clear that our standards call us to a higher commitment than the law — we are better than that. And finally, I expect you to make it crystal clear that to remain the world's most powerful Navy we must be 100 percent focused on staying ahead of our competition, which starts with leadership and teamwork … Own this problem. Solve it. There is no room in our Navy for toxic behavior.”
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 Marines. There were approximately 30,000 members in the group, which the service is working with Facebook and Google to shut down.
The revelations sparked outrage among lawmakers from both sides of the aisle and from military leaders alike, though public exposure has been limited in part to avoid unlawfully influencing the ongoing investigation by the Naval Criminal Investigative Service. The other two branches have also launched probes.
In testimony before Congress Tuesday, Neller said roughly 500 members of the Marines United group accessed a share drive online containing a cache of nude photos. To this point, 53 calls from alleged victims have come in to a tip line set up by the NCIS, according to acting Navy Secretary Sean Stackley.
Investigators are challenged by the rapidly-evolving nature of the groups — shut one down, another pops up somewhere else. Further complicating the matter is that message boards such as AnonIB are, as the name suggests, anonymous, making it difficult to figure out who is posting. Going after user data is a costly court procedure that presupposes you can figure out who runs the site in the first place.
The burgeoning controversy is drawing comparisons to the Navy’s infamous Tailhook scandal, where dozens of women and some men reported sexual assaults while attending a conference at the Las Vegas Hilton in 1991. That scandal rocked the Navy's traditional culture and set the stage for a force-wide crackdown on sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Yet the comparison falls short in one important way: unlike sexual assault, posting a nude photo, even without permission, isn’t always a crime.
That’s an issue that Rep. Jackie Spier, D-Calif., told Military Times was “a gaping hole in regard to revenge porn.”
Speier, who has pushed legislation for federal penalties against sharing nude photos without consent, will introduce a new measure early next week to amend the UCMJ to specifically outlaw the practice in the military as well.
“It’s a violation of privacy; it’s despicable behavior,” she said. “I think this shows a rotten culture in the military, and I’m not going to allow it to continue.”
Timothy Parlatore, a New York criminal defense attorney and former surface warfare officer who works with sailors pro bono, said that Article 134, which covers actions prejudicial to good order and discipline and that bring discredit to the service, would likely be the net that the services use to punish active-duty personnel who shared photos or made aggressive or harassing comments on the site.
“Article 134 is very broad and the actions could be seen as prejudicial to good order and discipline," he said. "Certainly its service discrediting, no question about that.”
Staff writers Andrew DeGrandpre and Leo Shane III contributed to this story.