There is no apparent evidence to suggest Lt. Col. James B. Conway did anything wrong in his role as battalion executive officer when scout snipers assigned to his unit filmed themselves urinating on dead insurgents in Afghanistan. Conway has said he was unaware, and we know of no reason to doubt that.
But proof is mounting that the Corps’ top leaders sought to ensure the former commandant’s son would not suffer professionally because of this scandal.
If true, that is unfair, unjust and unacceptable.
Conway was a major when the incident occurred in 2011 and, like others in the chain of command, was placed under administrative hold pending the outcome of the investigation and trials. His former boss, Lt. Col. Chris Dixon, who was commanding officer of the battalion, remains in limbo, with his promotion and follow-on assignment both on hold.
Not so for Conway, whose hold was lifted just in time for him to be promoted and given a battalion command in Hawaii.
Documents and emails circulated last spring among several generals, including the commandant, Gen. Jim Amos, assert that Conway had no contact with or proximity to those who made the video. “The scope of [his] responsibilities, geographic location and battlefield circulation did not put [him] in contact with or have influence over the Scout Sniper Team,” states a position paper sent to Amos along with 10 other two-, three- and four-star generals by then-Lt. Gen. John “Jay” Paxton, now a four-star general and the Marine Corps’ assistant commandant.
This was central to the “unanimous” recommendation to release him from administrative hold, even while other leaders in the battalion were kept on ice. By “unanimous,” Paxton was referring to himself; Gen. Joseph Dunford, then the ACMC; Lt. Gen. Richard Mills, the convening authority in these cases; and Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, the Corps’ top legal officer, among others.
Trouble is, that assertion was not true.
According to Conway’s own statement to investigators in January 2012, days after the urination video went viral on YouTube, he not only observed the operation leading up to the urination incident from the command operations center as the commander in charge, he also helped unload the corpses when the scout snipers brought them back to the command post.
Strangely, the brass sought to classify Conway’s statement.
Coupled with allegations suggesting the commandant and others manipulated prosecutions related to the video, this mess calls into question whether fairness gave way to favoritism and privilege.
At best, it’s shady.
At worst, this was a deliberate effort to hide information and undermine the military justice system.
Removing the hold on Conway’s promotion and assignment were, based on the evidence, subjects of interest to the highest ranking officers in the Marine Corps: the commandant, the former and current assistant commandant, and a host of others. That alone smacks of special treatment: How often is a major’s promotion to lieutenant colonel covered in a three- and four-star off-site, or detailed in email traffic copied to a dozen of the Corps’ top officers and lawyers?
The Defense Department Inspector General is aware of the allegations and the evidence. Because of the seniority of those involved and severity of these allegations, this case must be handled carefully and swiftly.
Accountability must be ensured as far up the chain as necessary to restore confidence that in the Marine Corps, justice is not based on rank or connections.