WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told the Marine Corps on Friday to re-investigate and take appropriate action against the Marine snipers who posed with a logo resembling a notorious Nazi symbol.
The top Marine officer apologized for the incident and ordered his commanders to look into the use of such symbols by snipers and reconnaissance Marines and make sure they are educated on how inappropriate such actions are.
The rapid-fire announcements came on the heels of demands from a leading Jewish organization and others for President Barack Obama to order an investigation into the incident and to hold the troops accountable.
Panetta met with Marine Corps Commandant James Amos on Friday to discuss, among other things, a spate of problem incidents involving Marines that have surfaced in recent months. A U.S. defense official said Panetta approved of the actions being taken by Amos to address the problems. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the meeting was private.
An initial Marine investigation into the matter concluded that the troops would not be disciplined because there was no malicious intent. The Marines mistakenly believed the "SS" in the shape of white lightning bolts on the blue flag were a nod to sniper scouts – not members of Adolf Hitler's special unit that murdered millions of Jews, Catholics, gypsies and others, said Maj. Gabrielle Chapin, a spokeswoman at Camp Pendleton, Calif.
But the furor over the photo – which was taken in September 2010 in Afghanistan – grew as Jewish leaders and others questioned whether it was an innocent mistake.
Pentagon press secretary George Little said that racist and anti-Semitic symbols have no place alongside U.S. service members.
And in a statement released Friday, Marine Corps Commandant James Amos ordered individual instruction for the sniper and reconnaissance Marines about the prohibitions against inappropriate symbols.
"I want to be clear that the Marine Corps unequivocally does not condone the use of any such symbols to represent our units or Marines," Amos said. "On behalf of the Marine Corps and all Marines, I apologize to all offended by this regrettable incident."
Amos also contacted Abraham H. Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, to assure him that the Corps will not tolerate the use of Nazi imagery. The Marines, said Foxman, have made it clear that they are taking steps to ensure that all the troops are aware of why Nazi imagery has no place in the armed services.
The Marines involved in the photo are no longer with Charlie Company, 1st Reconnaissance Battalion, out of the base north of San Diego. Chapin said she did not know if they had left the Corps.
Military officials learned of the photograph in November and investigated immediately. It later surfaced on a blog of a military weapons company.
The photo, taken in the Sangin district of Helmand province, shows 10 Marines posed with sniper rifles in front of an American flag above a dark blue flag with the "SS" letters.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder of Los Angeles' Simon Wiesenthal Center, who had called for Obama and Panetta to investigate the incident, said he welcomed Friday's development.
"I'm happy to hear that at the highest echelons of the United States government, this is being taken seriously," Hier said.
According to Chapin, the Corps has used the incident as a training tool to talk to troops about what symbols are acceptable.
"I don't believe that the Marines involved would have ever used any type of symbol associated with the Nazi Germany military criminal organization that committed mass atrocities in WWII," Chapin said. "It's not within who we are as Marines."
It was the second time this year that images have surfaced showing Marines acting improperly and forcing the Corps to deal with the fallout. Last month, the Pentagon scrambled to contain the damage after an Internet video purportedly showed Marines urinating on Taliban corpses – an act that appeared to violate international laws of warfare and further strained U.S.-Afghan relations. Panetta called Afghan President Hamid Karzai to offer assurances of an investigation, and the top Marine general promised an internal probe as well as a criminal one.
Those Marines, like the ones in front of the flag, fought in former Taliban strongholds in Helmand province. They are based at Camp Lejeune, N.C.
Mikey Weinstein of the Military Religious Freedom Foundation, headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M., said the scandals hurt U.S. military missions. His organization wrote to Amos and Panetta on Thursday, calling on them to "condemn this stomach-turning display without equivocation or delay and severely punish all of those responsible."
The Military Religious Freedom Foundation released another photo showing a Marine and his rifle with the "SS" logo. According to the Marine Corps Times, embedded electronic information in the image shows that it was released by the Corps in 2004 and taken at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif. Two Marines in it were with a scout sniper platoon.
The newspaper said that suggests the practice is more widespread and that the logo's use is meant to signify "scout sniper," a position exclusive to the Corps. The Army has scouts and snipers but considers the positions to be separate.
The photograph appeared on the blog for a military weapons manufacturer, Knight's Armament, in Titusville, Fla. Spokesman Jon Oxford said the company invites troops to send in photos so customers can see how its weapons are used in the field.
The company removed the photo Thursday because of the media attention, he said.
Watson reported from San Diego.