That disturbing and creepy Marines United naked pictures scandal— which exposed bad behavior on the part of thousands of officers and has garnered international attention — just hit close to home here in San Francisco. In recent weeks, the San Francisco Veteran Affairs Commission learned that one of its former commissioners tweeted out a number of the explicit, nude photos of female service members — and did so from an unprotected Twitter account, making the naked pictures of these women public.
Marines United was a secret Facebook group that had nearly 30,000 members at the peak of its membership before the scandal broke. In the group, Marines non-consensually shared large troves of explicit, nude photographs of female service members without their knowledge or permission. (Women were not admitted into the closed group, which disappeared from Facebook after the Center for Investigative Reporting’s website Reveal broke the story March 4.
Days later, as the Marines United scandal made headlines nationwide, a former San Francisco Veterans Affairs commissioner tweeted several images of female service members in various states of undress. Many of these tweets contained disparaging messages toward the women for taking personal erotic photos, blaming them for the images being made public. SF Weekly has been unable to confirm whether the photos are from the Marines United photo trove. But through reverse image searching of screenshots we obtained, we were able to confirm that at least some of the amateur photos were indeed of active or former military service members.
The tweets originated from a Twitter account with the username “@jtwrs.” These tweets have since been deleted, and the account has moved to a different username. But by using the popular Wayback Machine at Archive.org, that Twitter handle can be traced to the name Jordan Towers — the same name the SF Veteran Affairs Commission (SFVAC) used in a statement condemning one of its former commissioners.
After the tweets were uncovered, the SFVAC made a public announcement about the activity on their website, dated March 7, 2017.
“The SFVAC was also shocked to learn about the Twitter postings former Commissioner Jordan Towers used to engage with the news of the Reveal article and the actions of the members of Marines United,” the statement says. “They do not, in any way, shape, or form, reflect the views of current Commissioners or the SFVAC.
“We strongly condemn the actions of Marines United and former Commissioner Jordan Towers, denouncing their associations with any and all military or veteran organizations,” the SFVAC statement concludes.
Being a San Francisco Veteran Affairs Commissioner is not exactly a big-deal City Hall job. It’s a volunteer role, and as many as 17 different commissioners hold the title at any given time. They meet monthly to give guidance to the mayor and Board of Supervisors on issues concerning the welfare of veterans. But the title carries some weight within the military community, particularly among veterans. The Veteran Affairs Commission is none too pleased to be associated with the Marines United incident.
“The whole scandal undermines the great work that veterans and the military are doing and threatens the whole community,” the SFVAC tells SF Weekly.
Towers served as a commissioner from 2011 to 2014. We were able to reach him on the phone, but he was understandably unwilling to speak on record. However, he did note that he’s heartbroken over how the Marines United scandal has reflected on the service.
Through being publicly called out for his transgressions, Towers has been punished for his actions. But the images, and the messages that accompany the tweets, highlight a few problems: the continuing presence of sexual harassment in military culture, the lightning speed at which these women’s compromising photos are being shared on the internet, and the significant risk of blackmail this creates for service members and the larger U.S. defense community.
That said, sharing other people’s nude photos on the internet is not a crime (unless the image depicts someone under 18). A person could be charged with a misdemeanor under California’s revenge-porn law, but third parties who share the photos cannot be charged because an “intent to cause substantial emotional distress or humiliation” cannot be proven. Third parties could theoretically be sued in a civil case for invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or damage to reputation. But again, intent would be exceedingly difficult to prove.
But for active officers, the situation is more complicated, due to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. According to a statement the Marines released that addresses the Marines United scandal, “A Marine could potentially be charged for violating Article 133 (for officers) or Article 134 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). If a Marine shared a photo of another person that was taken without that person’s consent and under circumstances in which that other person had a reasonable expectation of privacy, the Marine may have violated Article 120c, UCMJ, for broadcasting or distribution of an indecent visual recording.
“A Marine who directly participates in, encourages, or condones such actions could also be subjected to criminal proceedings or adverse administrative actions,” the statement says.
The UCMJ does not apply to veterans who have been discharged, unless the offense was committed while the individual was still on active duty. And the above regulations only apply to the original recipient of the photo, not to third parties who somehow acquired it and shared it online.
Those laws don’t go far enough for northern California congresswoman Rep. Jackie Speier, however. Speier introduced a bill on March 16, called the Servicemembers Intimate Privacy Protection Act (SIPPA), that would amend the UCMJ to prohibit any sharing of a service member’s intimate images without their express consent.
“Websites with nude pictures of women in the military distributed without their knowledge and consent undermine our armed forces, unit cohesion, and combat readiness,” Speier said in a statement. “We must amend the UCMJ to make these acts illegal, so that future perpetrators will be held responsible.”
The Marines encourage any currently or formerly enlisted victims of online sexual harassment to report crimes to the NCIS website or via the TipSubmit App. Counseling is available to victims at their local Vet Center.
Revenge-porn victims can find resources and image removal tools at the Cyber exploitation website established by the California Department of Justice. Some great tips on protecting the privacy of your images can be found in Violet Blue’s The Smart Girl’s Guide to Privacy and the Krebs on Security blog.
Joe Kukura is an SF Weekly contributor.