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The three senior officers overseeing Maj. Jason Brezler's administrative hearing here were charged with determining whether he demonstrated substandard conduct by improperly handling classified documents. But they also were asked to consider how Brezler's case played out in the media.
Brezler was lionized in the mainstream press after details of his case were first reported by Marine Corps Times in August. CNN, Fox News and outlets in Brezler's native New York City published extensive accounts of his service and how he had sought to alert fellow Marines about the danger posed by a crooked Afghan cop whose teenage "tea boy" would later be accused of murdering three Marines aboard a coalition base in Helmand province. These reports, as well as those produced by Marine Corps Times, were aided by materials and interviews provided by Brezler's attorney, Kevin Carroll.
Displeasure among Marine brass became evident when emails surfaced from Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, who as the head of Marine Forces Reserve oversaw the Marine Corps' handling of this case. "Unfortunately, Maj. Brezler/civilian defense counsel has decided to try his case in the press," Mills wrote in October to five generals, including the service's commandant. "... We have responded appropriately and will ensure that Maj. Brezler has a full and fair [board of inquiry]."
At Marine Corps headquarters, leaders were dismayed by the media attention this case and others have received in recent months. In such matters, the Marine Corps often declines comment — or says very little — because there are open investigations. Ahead of Brezler's hearing, there was concern about the perception such stories create among the public and among junior Marines.
On Dec. 19, after three days of proceedings, the officers overseeing his hearing recommended that Brezler be separated from the Marine Corps with an honorable discharge, thus ending his military career.
Brezler's attorneys argued he had taken home classified documents by mistake and didn't realize he had them until his email about the Afghan cop raised concern among the officers who received it. When Brezler was warned he had mishandled the information, he reported himself to his superiors.
But it was disclosed during his hearing that, on Brezler's computer, investigators found a book manuscript containing some of the classified information about his experiences in Afghanistan.
Mills declined to comment on the outcome of Brezler's hearing because, despite the board's recommendation he be discharged, a course of action has not been finalized. However, he told Marine Corps Times "I think every defendant should have full access to their complete bank of rights, however that is defined."
During preliminary questioning, all three of the members of the board acknowledged they had read news stories about Brezler but said they hadn't spent much time absorbing the details. As the hearing progressed, the panel was reminded multiple times by government attorney Maj. Chip Hodge that Brezler was "shaping his story through the media," determined to get a certain result.
When he testified at the end of his hearing, Brezler said he was uncomfortable with the press attention and had not spoken to any media outlet, referring to Carroll all questions or requests for comment. Hodge then went around the room and distributed copies of a photo of Brezler taken by Marine Corps Times the night prior, with assistance and coordination from Marine public affairs officers.
Brezler acknowledged he had been asked to take the photo and consented.
"Did anyone restrain you?" Hodge said.
Later, in closing arguments, Hodge pulled up a Web page showing Google search results for Brezler's name. The board's officers, he said, had a responsibility, based on "general deterrence," to deliver a ruling that would set a precedent in classification cases.
"This country does not take this stuff lightly. But I do want to address that this case is being followed closely," he said. "There are likely millions of people around the country waiting for your decision. Do we want good military character to trump military actions?"
Col. Francis Piccoli, the head of public affairs for Marine Forces Reserve, questioned the way Carroll had presented Brezler's case to the media. Marine Corps Times reviewed emails sent in August from Carroll to Piccoli and others saying he would rather see the board of inquiry canceled than "fight this out in the press." The same day, he sent a link to a story about Brezler that appeared in the New York Daily News.
Carroll said he sent the emails while serving as senior counsel to the House Homeland Security Committee; his firm began representing Brezler Sept. 13.
"Depending on the level of one's exposure to the civilian attorney's media engagement, I contend that [Brezler's] position may have been undermined because people with integrity and character don't pursue a media advocacy program prior to an administrative hearing," Piccoli said, stressing his opinion does not represent that of the Marine Corps. "I believe the respondent did not participate in this tactic, but by virtue of his legal counsel doing so, it presupposes the perception of cooperation."
However, he added that it is unclear how much exposure the board's officers had to media coverage and how much it influenced their decision-making.
Asked about Piccoli's perspective, Carroll, who represented Brezler pro bono, provided the following statement: "The Board members stated during voir dire that they had minimal exposure to news stories about Jason Brezler. And their duty was to make a decision on the basis of the facts presented at his hearing. If that was not the case, the board's result may be invalid."