WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Leon Panetta phoned Afghanistan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday and promised a full investigation of a video that purports to depict four U.S. Marines urinating on the corpses of Taliban fighters — a video both men condemned as deplorable.
In a separate public statement, Panetta said such behavior is "entirely inappropriate for members of theUnited States military" and that those responsible will be held accountable.
At least two of the four men have been identified as Marines based at Camp Lejeune, N.C., the Associated Press reported, citing a Marine official who spoke on condition of anonymity because there is an active criminal investigation of the incident.
The Marine Corps' top general condemned the video and called for criminal and internal probes into what has quickly mushroomed into an international incident that threatens to undermine the U.S war effort.
"The behavior depicted in the video is wholly inconsistent with the high standards of conduct and warrior ethos that we have demonstrated throughout our history," Gen. Jim Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said in a statement issued Thursday morning. "Accordingly, late yesterday I requested that the Naval Criminal Investigative Service pull together a team of their very best agents and immediately assign them responsibility to thoroughly investigate every aspect of the filmed event."
The video, posted on the Internet, shows men in Marine combat gear standing in a semicircle over three bodies. It's not clear whether the dead were Taliban or civilians or someone else. The title on the posting called them Taliban insurgents and said the men were from Camp Lejeune, but officials would not immediately confirm it.
Officials said they had not yet verified the video's origin or authenticity, but had no reason to doubt what it was.
"It clearly appears to be to us what it appears to be to you: troops urinating on corpses," Pentagon spokesman Capt. John Kirby told reporters Thursday morning.
The lasting impact of the video may affect American public opinion about the war, according to a military expert.
The incident, essentially dehumanizing the enemy, is common in war, especially in units that lack strong leadership, said Andrew Exum, a military analyst at the Center for a New American Security who also led Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Politicians and average Americans think the world of U.S. Marines and soldiers for good reason," Exum said. "But they need to see war as it is, not the sanitized version" portrayed in Hollywood films.
Young troops in a foreign country who don't understand the local language or culture, experiencing combat stress and lacking strong sergeants and officers "will do stupid things," Exum said. "There's no excuse for it."
The video shows four men in Marine uniforms standing over bloodied corpses and urinating on them. One man says, "Have a great day, buddy."
The video was roundly denounced in the U.S. and Afghanistan alike.
Karzai called it "completely inhumane." He called on the U.S. military to punish those responsible.
The Afghan Defense Ministry called it "shocking." And the Taliban issued a statement accusing U.S. forces of committing numerous "indignities" against the Afghan people.
"First, they killed the Afghans with mortars, and they then urinated on their bodies," Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid said of what is shown in the video. "We strongly condemn this inhumane action by the wild American soldiers."
Panetta said the actions, if confirmed, were inexcusable.
"I have seen the footage, and I find the behavior depicted in it utterly deplorable. I condemn it in the strongest possible terms," Panetta's statement said. "Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent."
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton expressed "total dismay" at the video and said it was "absolutely inconsistent with the standards of behavior that the vast majority of Marines hold themselves to."
While NCIS starts its investigation, Amos has assigned a Marine general officer and a senior attorney to head an "internal preliminary inquiry." It's not immediately clear who those officials are, although both have "extensive combat experience," Amos said in his statement. Once the investigation and inquiry are complete, the service will take "the appropriate next steps."
"Rest assured that the institution of the Marine Corps will not rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved," Amos said.
Marine officials at the Pentagon learned of the video Wednesday after receiving a media query from The Sun, a British tabloid, said Capt. Kendra Hardesty, a Marine spokeswoman at the Pentagon. The 40-second clip, titled "Marines peeing on taliban," has spread to numerous websites, attracting thousands of views and comments — some of them criticizing the men in the video and condemning the Marine Corps at large.
A caption beneath the video identifies the men as members of a scout sniper team assigned to 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, out of Camp Lejeune. That infantry battalion returned to Camp Lejeune in September and October from a standard seven-month deployment to Afghanistan's Helmand province. Its Marines saw intense action in and around Musa Qala, a violent district located in northern Helmand.
A spokesman for the battalion's parent command, 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force, declined to discuss the matter.
One of the largest obstacles to peace discussions has been widespread Afghan contempt for U.S. military tactics often criticized as heavy-handed. Opposition to the U.S. and NATO military presence in Afghanistan usually centers on civilian casualties from military engagement, although the vast majority of those deaths are caused by the insurgents.
Although the urination video purports to show Taliban fighters, not civilians, it is likely to resonate with those opposed to the U.S. presence and to peace with the U.S.-backed Karzai government.
The NATO-led security force in Afghanistan released a statement Thursday saying, "This disrespectful act is inexplicable and not in keeping with the high moral standards we expect of coalition forces."
The actions "appear to have been conducted by a small group of U.S. individuals, who apparently are no longer serving in Afghanistan," the International Security Assistance Force said. The statement did not identify the personnel or explain why the ISAF thought they had left the country.
Sen. John McCain, a Navy veteran who fought and was held prisoner in the Vietnam War, said the incident "makes me so sad."
McCain, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, called the Marine Corps one of America's strongest institutions and said its image has apparently been tarnished by "a handful of obviously undisciplined people."
"There should be an investigation, and these young people should be punished," McCain said Thursday on CBS This Morning.
In an e-mailed statement, Taliban spokesman Mujahid said, "During these 10 years, American soldiers have tortured our people in various ways, they have shown disrespect to the holy Quran and other holy books, they have burned our bodies, they have killed and tortured our women and children and … have committed other hateful actions."
Mujahid urged the U.N. and other international groups to end such actions by U.S. troops.
On Wednesday, the Council on Islamic-American Relations, a prominent Muslim civil rights and advocacy group based in Washington, protested the video in a letter to Panetta.
"We condemn this apparent desecration of the dead as a violation of our nation's military regulations and of international laws of war prohibiting such disgusting and immoral actions," the group wrote.
"If verified as authentic, the video shows behavior that is totally unbecoming of American military personnel and that could ultimately endanger other soldiers and civilians," the letter said.