This article was originally published at 2:45 a.m. EST, March 5

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Marine Corps is investigating allegations an unspecified number of military personnel and veterans allegedly distributed nude photos of female colleagues and other women as part of a perverse social media network that promotes sexual violence.

The explosive revelation was first reported by  The War Horse and published Saturday via Reveal, part of the Center for Investigative Reporting. Potentially hundreds of Marines may be caught up in the scandal, which has shaken top Pentagon officials and prompted death threats against the Marine veteran who disclosed it. An undetermined number of nude photos were shared online by way of a Facebook group titled Marines United, according to the report. The community has nearly 30,000 members, mostly comprising active-duty U.S. Marines, Marine Corps veterans and British Royal Marines. 

The unseemly episode is deeply embarrassing for the Marine Corps and the Defense Department, proud institutions that, like many college campuses around the country, have struggled to curtail widespread problems with sexual assault. At the same time, it exposes an unsettling rift within a segment of American society consistently regarded as reputable, honorable and trustworthy.

A Marine Corps spokesman at the Pentagon confirmed that an investigation is underway, telling Marine Corps Times on Saturday night that military officials are uncertain how many personnel may be involved. The spokesman, Maj. Clark Carpenter, referred additional questions to the Naval Criminal Investigative Service, but that agency's spokesman was not immediately available.

The Marines' top general, Commandant Robert Neller, declined to comment specifically about the investigation, but he condemned the behavior that's been alleged. "The success of every Marine, every team, every unit and command throughout our Corps is based on mutual trust and respect," Neller said in a statement provided to Marine Corps Times. "I expect every Marine to demonstrate the highest integrity and loyalty to fellow Marines at all times, on duty, off-duty and online."

Marine Corps Times has been unable to reach the administrator of Marines United. Defenders of the private group, following Marine Corps Times' initial report, pointed out members have helped Marines suffering from post-traumatic stress, and that the group has reacted in force to help suicidal service members.

Senior Marine Corps officials are circulating a 10-page document outlining the allegations and approved talking points about the service's effort to investigate them. Marine Corps Times obtained a copy early Sunday.

This screen grab of the Marine Corps' 10-page public affairs guidance outlines talking points for senior leaders who may be asked about allegations related to a lewd Facebook group called Marines United.

Public Affairs Guidance: Marines United

The news report was authored by Thomas Brennan, an Iraq and Afghanistan combat veteran and Purple Heart recipient who founded  The War Horse in 2016. The nonprofit news site focuses on military and veterans affairs, and tales of combat heroism.

After its publication, several members of the Facebook group lashed out at Brennan, making threats against him and his family. One suggested Brennan should be waterboarded, a cruel and controversial technique used for a time by American military and intelligence operatives while interrogating suspected terrorists. President Obama condemned the practice, while President Trump has said it should be reinstated — against the advice of his defense secretary, retired Marine Corps Gen. Jim Mattis.

That some U.S. Marines would suggest another deserves to be tortured or murdered is perhaps more troubling than the salacious allegations Brennan exposed in his reporting.

There's a "bounty on pictures of my daughter," Brennan told Marine Corps Times. "It has been suggested that my wife should be raped as a result of this, and people are openly suggesting I should be killed. ... Can you imagine being one of the victims?"

The story was "exhaustively researched," he added, noting that the Defense Department is conducting an investigation "to ensure the victims receive justice" and no one else falls prey. 

"As a Marine veteran," Brennan said, "I stand by the code: honor, courage and commitment. This story was published with the intention of standing up for what is right and staying true to the leadership principle of looking out for Marines and their families."

His report includes a number of disturbing allegations. It suggests some women were stalked while others may have taken the compromising photos themselves, intending them to be private, only to be betrayed by whoever shared them with the Facebook group. Most troubling is the claim that members of Marines United proudly advocated for one woman to be sexually assaulted, an unidentified female Marine who was secretly photographed, according to the report.

The Marine Corps — perhaps more than the other military services — has grappled with social media malfeasance for years, both within the ranks and among its veteran population. Members of Congress, including Rep. Jackie Speier of California, have been after senior leaders to get tougher on confronting cyber bullies. That makes these new revelations all the more discouraging.

At its most disgraceful, the online bullying targets racial and religious minorities, those who are overweight, homosexuals, transgender people and women, whom social media trolls readily condemn as inferior to men and unworthy of the service's coveted Eagle, Globe and Anchor device intended to be a symbol uniting all Marines.

Former President Barack Obama's order to open ground combat specialties to women, an edict several Marine Corps generals have publicly opposed, seems to have fueled the offensive discourse online. Army leaders, by contrast, have welcomed the change, raising questions as to whether the Marines' institutional resistance to gender integration within its principal war-fighting units has unwittingly exacerbated the struggle with reducing deviant behavior.

Marine Corps officials are encouraging victims to report suspected crimes via NCIS, which has several meansto contact law enforcement anonymously.

"The Marine Corps is deeply concerned," said Capt. Ryan E. Alvis, a Marine Corps spokeswoman. "... This behavior destroys morale, erodes trust, and degrades the individual." Alvis indicated the allegations, if proven true, would violate the Uniform Code of Military Justice and could result in criminal charges. The Marine Corps, she added, has various resources available to those who believe they were targeted.

"In addition to the chain of command, resources include, but are not limited to: Military One Source, Inspector General hotlines and military chaplains," Alvis said. "Individuals can also report the incident to local authorities. Efforts are underway to notify commanders and other resource providers."

The top enlisted Marine, Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps Ronald Green, said there is no place for "this type of demeaning or degrading behavior." He issued an emotional written statement encouraging Marines to come forward and expose the wrongdoers. It's their responsibility, he said.

"Stand up, speak out and be a voice of change for the better," Green said. "Hold those who misstep accountable. We need to realize that silence is consent — do not be silent. It is your duty to protect one another, not just for the Marine Corps but for humanity. ... I need you with me on this."

"Ultimately," he added, "we must take a look in the mirror and decide whether we are part of the problem or the solution."

Jeff Schogol is a senior writer for Marine Corps Times. On Twitter: @JeffSchogolAndrew deGrandpre is Military Times' senior editor and Pentagon bureau chief. On Twitter: @adegrandpre.

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