The Pentagon’s Obsession With Secrecy Protected a Marine Accused of Sexual Assault

At a U.S. base in Syria, some attacks get press while others stay hidden.

UNDISCLOSED LOCATION, SYRIA – U.S. Marines with Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 7th Marine Regiment, attached to Special Purpose Marine Air-Ground Task Force, Crisis Response-Central Command provide security during a key leader engagement in support of Combined Joint Task Force – Operation Inherent Resolve (CJTF-OIR) operations Sept. 9, 2018. CJTF-OIR is the military arm of the Global Coalition to defeat ISIS in designated parts of Iraq and Syria. (U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Gabino Perez)
U.S. Marines provide security during operations in Syria on Sept. 9, 2018. Photo: Cpl. Gabino Perez/Marine Corps

When a low-profile U.S. military base in Syria came under rocket attack last week, a U.S. Central Command spokesperson accused the assailants of endangering civilians and undermining “the hard-earned stability and security of Syria and the region.”

But exclusive records obtained by The Intercept suggest that U.S. personnel at Mission Support Site Green Village in northeast Syria have been under attack before — not just by local fighters, but also by fellow U.S. personnel. A National Guard soldier was assaulted by a U.S. Marine there in July 2018, according to a detailed criminal investigation report obtained via the Freedom of Information Act.

Shortly after being deployed to the base in northeast Syria, the soldier from the 65th Field Artillery Brigade said that, during a bathroom break while on guard duty, she was approached by a Marine. “I heard from one of your guys that you like to get around,” he allegedly said before grabbing her arms, pulling her toward him, and attempting to kiss her. As she struggled, the soldier threw a punch that connected with her attacker’s right jaw, then shoved her way free, according to the report.

The criminal investigation documents obtained by The Intercept provide details about a base where anonymity was the norm, and local partners — the Syrian Democratic Forces, a U.S.-backed Kurdish-led group — were not trusted. “For operational security reasons relative to coalition members the U.S. military works alongside, there were no name tapes on U.S. military members’ uniforms at Green Village,” according to the investigation report. “Additionally, U.S. military members at Green Village commonly did not ask other military members their names and members of [redacted] platoon only identified themselves as being assigned to Green Village and attached to Task Force 95.” As a result, while the soldier recognized the distinctive digital camouflage pattern worn by Marines, she did not know the identity of the man who attacked her.

The lack of basic transparency that protected the identity of the Marine accused in the assault is a direct consequence of the penumbra of secrecy covering U.S. military operations in Syria and so much of the Pentagon’s activities around the world. Since 9/11, a proliferation of covert and clandestine activities, unattributed attacks, and programs employing foreign proxies has, as a 2022 Brennan Center report noted, resulted in the U.S. waging more than a dozen “secret wars.”


In U.S. Military, Sexual Assault Against Men Is Vastly Underreported

Conflicts cloaked in secrecy allow the U.S. to conduct missions without meaningful oversight — preventing the public and Congress from knowing where and why U.S. forces are operating — and have led the U.S. to partner with abusive allies and cover up its role in the killing of civilians in countries where the U.S. isn’t even at war. In Syria, for example, the U.S. is currently fighting an overt, if low-profile, war against the Islamic State group and a shadow conflict of dubious legality against Iranian proxies.

Far-flung military operations and the secrecy that surrounds them have also allowed the Pentagon to manipulate its sexual assault statistics. A 2021 investigation by The Intercept found that sexual assault of U.S. military personnel in Africa was far more widespread than the Pentagon reported to Congress.

While the 2018 assault at Green Village has not previously been disclosed, the outpost has periodically attracted attention. It has been the subject of intermittent — and frequently inaccurate — attacks over the years, including on March 13, when two rockets landed harmlessly nearby. Green Village was also in the news two days later when an American airman accused of an insider attack there last year was acquitted at court martial. The government argued that, in April 2022, Air Force Tech. Sgt. David Dezwaan, an enlisted explosive ordnance disposal technician, detonated explosives that injured four service members, including himself, and destroyed $50,000 worth of military equipment. Dezwaan was charged with destruction of military property, reckless endangerment, and aggravated assault but was acquitted on all counts.

The case against Dezwaan resulted in an eight-day court-martial proceeding. The 2018 sexual assault case, on the other hand, never got off the ground. After noticing red scratches that ran from her elbows to her wrists and that she was unusually quiet, the soldier’s platoon sergeant asked her what was wrong. When she told him about the attack, it was passed along to her commanding officer, prompting the investigation. Unable to identify her attacker, uncomfortable with the attention generated by the complaint, and with the Marines scheduled to rotate out of Syria in a matter of days, the soldier told a Navy criminal investigator that she wished to “let it be” and not take part in an investigation. The inquiry was subsequently closed.

Even if she had pursued the case, the military justice system rarely results in significant accountability for victims of sexual assault. Just 225 of 5,640 eligible cases went to court-martial and only 50 of those resulted in convictions for nonconsensual sexual offenses, according to 2020 Defense Department statistics. That’s a conviction rate of less than 1 percent.

About 900 U.S. personnel are currently deployed in Syria, according to Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense Dana Stroul. American forces are ostensibly stationed at Green Village and elsewhere in that country “to ensure ISIS cannot resurge” according to Maj. Gen. Matthew McFarlane, the officer in charge of U.S. operations in Iraq and Syria. Those forces increasingly also fight Iran-backed militia groups. The legal basis for this unacknowledged mission is murky at best and has been questioned repeatedly by experts and members of Congress.

“The highest priority for President Biden and for Secretary of Defense [Lloyd] Austin is the security and safety of [U.S.] forces while they continue to implement the one mission that they are in northeast Syria for, and that is the deterrent — enduring defeat of ISIS,” Stroul said in a recent conference call with The Intercept and reporters from other media outlets. “U.S. forces are present in Syria for no other purposes, and we seek conditions that enable us to continue our focus on that mission.”

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