Although Maj. Jason Brezler received support and endorsements from congressmen, a former assistant secretary of defense, and even Marine Corps generals at his board of inquiry, a panel of three officers recommended Thursday that he be separated from the Marine Corps with an honorable discharge.
After three days of testimony and arguments and more than two hours of deliberation, the board, composed of Col. James Iulo, Col. Bart Pester and Lt. Col. Todd Manyx, found that Brezler, a Reserve officer and New York City firefighter, had demonstrated substandard conduct, misconduct or professional or moral dereliction, and conduct unbecoming an officer by failing to observe correct protocols for handling classified information. He doesn’t deserve to stay in the Corps, they concluded.
Brezler came under investigation in 2012 when he received an urgent email from then-Capt. Andrew Terrell regarding Sarwar Jan, a corrupt Afghan police chief with known Taliban ties and a penchant for child sex abuse who had gained access to a Marine base. Brezler, attending a graduate school seminar in Oklahoma at the time, fired off a classified briefing document about Jan from his Yahoo account.
When another officer who received the email raised the alarm about sending the document over a nonsecure network, Brezler reported himself to his superiors and cooperated with a Naval Criminal Investigative Service probe into the classified material spillage. The probe turned up another folder with some 106 documents marked secret. Brezler said he inadvertently brought them back with him following his 2010 deployment to Now Zad, Afghanistan, where limited resources sometimes meant Marines worked on their personal computers and thumb drives.
Seventeen days after Brezler sent the document about Sarwar Jan, one of the teenage boys whom Jan kept on base grabbed a rifle and killed three Marines, seriously wounding another.
Testifying in his own defense Thursday morning, Bezler said his response “was just visceral” when he received the email regarding Jan. “His name brought me great concern, knowing he was somewhere in the battlespace. I immediately responded.”
When he learned about the deaths of the three Marines, he felt that his worst fears had come true, Brezler said.
But a Marine prosecutor said this week that the case was about more than that one communication with Marines in Afghanistan. Brezler knowingly kept classified documents to inform a book he was writing about his Now Zad experiences, said Maj. Chip Hodge, showing that Brezler had copied and pasted a paragraph from the Sarwar Jan document into his manuscript, “Rebirth of Apocalypse Now Zad.”
Brezler was feigning ignorance by saying he had taken the documents home by mistake and that he used the Sarwar Jan information in his manuscript without realizing it was classified, Hodge said.
“He knew [the classified information] was there. He knew he had access to it. He knew where to go for it,” said Hodge. “... [Brezler] didn’t think the rules applied to him.”
Brezler’s defenders are many. His attorneys, Maj. Amelia Kays and Kevin Carroll, submitted 60 letters of recommendation to the board, which included praise from Marine generals. On Wednesday, nine witnesses testified in his defense, including three of his commanding officers and bestselling author Bing West, a former assistant secretary of defense.
First Marine Division commander Maj. Gen. Lawrence Nicholson, commander of the 1st Marine Division, wrote that Brezler’s contributions in Iraq and Afghanistan “rank among the most important I’ve seen in the most challenging settings.”
John Kael Weston, a former State Department official who has advised Marine generals in Iraq and who met Brezler in Now Zad, said his separation would be a loss for the country.
“We need a bench of experienced officers so our nation is prepared the next time we need a Marine Corps,” he said. With Brezler’s separation, he said, “The Marine Corps loses, he obviously loses, but we as a nation lose.”
The case has also received a flurry of press attention from media outlets nationally and in Brezler’s home state of New York, with many asking why Brezler was investigated so aggressively after trying to inform fellow Marines about a perceived threat.
In his closing argument, Hodge pulled up a Google page showing all the news search results under Brezler’s name, suggesting the media coverage following the case should play into the board’s deliberation.
“There are likely millions of people around the country waiting for your decision,” he said. “Do we want good military character to trump military actions?”
Brezler also has been defended by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Rep. Peter King, R-N.Y., and this week a bipartisan group of six more congressmen wrote to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus asking that the Reserve officer receive fair treatment.
Brezler stood at attention during the board’s recommendation, quietly embracing his father as the courtroom emptied. He had no comment following the decision.
Stephen Brezler, Jason’s father, said little.
“Obviously we’re disappointed, but we appreciate the Marine Corps family,” he said. “Jason served his country honorably.”
Carroll did not say whether he plans to appeal the decision.
The board’s recommendation requires endorsement from Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, commander of Marine Forces Reserve, and from Mabus before the decision is made final.