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Marine under fire: Will the punishment fit the crime?

By Ivan Watson and Laura Dolan, CNN
October 30, 2013 -- Updated 1954 GMT (0354 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Jason Brezler faces possible discharge on less than honorable terms
  • He served for 13 years, including four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan
  • Brezler is accused of mishandling classified information
  • Influential supporters are leaping to the 32-year old veteran's defense

New York (CNN) -- Jason Brezler is an elite New York firefighter. He is also a highly decorated officer in the U.S. Marine Corps Forces Reserve, who has served four tours in Iraq and Afghanistan.

So why is Maj. Brezler facing possible discharge on less than honorable terms after serving 13 years with the Marines?

He is accused of mishandling classified information and faces an investigation that could determine his future.

"For a man like Jason Brezler, being asked to separate from the Marine Corps that he loved so much would be an even worse punishment than jail," said Kevin Carroll, Brezler's attorney, a former CIA officer who is providing Brezler pro bono representation along with his law firm Quinn, Emanuel, Urquhart & Sullivan.

In an e-mail to CNN, Marine Col. Francis Piccoli wrote that because of "the mishandling of classified information, Maj. Brezler has been ordered to show cause of retention in the U.S. Marine Corps before a Board of Inquiry."

That board will consist of three officers: one colonel and two lieutenant colonels.

Brezler, a tall man with a strong New York accent and a blond buzz-cut, is legally barred from speaking about his case.

But influential supporters are leaping to the 32-year-old veteran's defense. A congressman, a senator and two Marine Corps generals have written letters on Brezler's behalf.

None of his defenders dispute the fact that Brezler broke security protocol when he sent classified information over an insecure line in summer 2012. In fact, his attorney said Brezler quickly reported the mistake to his superiors.

His defenders argue the urgency of the situation warranted the security breach.

"Maj. Brezler was in a position where lives were in danger and time was of the essence, and in the end his assessment of the threat proved accurate," wrote New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand in a letter to the Marines.

During summer 2012, Brezler was attending graduate courses in Oklahoma when he received an e-mail from Marine officers in Afghanistan's Helmand province, a deeply troubled area where Brezler had been deployed in 2009-2010.

"The subject line of the e-mail he received said in all capital letters with three exclamation marks 'IMPORTANT: SARWAR JAN IS BACK,'" said Carroll.

Brezler had history with Jan, an Afghan police commander who had been active in Helmand province.

"When Jason was serving in Afghanistan in 2010, he caused Sarwar Jan, a police official, to be fired from that position because he was raping children," Carroll said.

Despite repeated efforts by CNN's bureau in Kabul, Jan could not be found to comment for this report.

Carroll said "within minutes" Brezler wrote his colleagues back at Forward Operating Base Delhi in Afghanistan, with a warning about Jan. He attached to the e-mail a classified document that included allegations about Jan, claiming he had ties to the Taliban.

"Jason immediately responded with everything he knew, including some extraordinarily derogatory information he knew about this man indicating that he was a threat not only to local children but to Marines," Carroll said. "When the Marines in Afghanistan wrote back saying that some of that information might have been classified, (Brezler) immediately turned himself in."

In retrospect, some observers believe this was a breach of security that could have saved lives.

On August 10, 2012, less than two weeks after Brezler's warning, three Marines were shot to death in the gym at FOB Delhi. Their names were Staff Sgt. Scott Dickinson, Cpl. Richard Rivera and Lance Cpl. Gregory Buckley.

The suspected gunman was a teenage servant, known by the single Afghan name Aynoddin, who was working on the base for Jan.

Despite his earlier dismissal, Jan had been appointed to command the Afghan police in another district of Helmand Province, where FOB Delhi was located.

More than a year later, Buckley's home in Oceanside, New York, is decorated with American flags and photos in honor of the slain 21-year old.

Asked what would have happened if commanders at FOB Delhi heeded Brezler's warning, Greg Buckley Sr. paused, his eyes filling with tears.

"I would have my son," he said. "I would have my boy with me today."

Before the shooting, Buckley Sr. said that his son had warned him over the phone about the Afghan police commander named Jan.

"He told me that (Jan) was a bad person," the elder Buckley said.

"They all knew that he was a bad guy. He was thrown out of two other bases prior to this for drug laundering, prostitution and ties to the Taliban," he said.

In the aftermath of the shooting, Jan was detained by Afghan security forces, according to an August 2012 report in The Washington Post.

Despite repeated requests for information, Afghan officials both in the Helmand provincial government and in the Interior Ministry of the national government in Kabul told CNN they had no information about either Jan or Aynoddin's current whereabouts.

Meanwhile, more than 14 months after the deadly shooting, American investigators have yet to publish the results of their inquiry.

"The case is still open, pending prosecution by the Afghanis," wrote Ed Buice, a spokesman for Naval Criminal Investigative Service, in an e-mail to CNN.

Military experts and government officials are questioning why it has taken so long to release a report.

"Generally, investigations are conducted a lot more quickly," said Rep. Peter King, a Republican from New York.

Last month, King sent a letter to the Department of Defense asking investigators to answer several questions, including:

-- Did Sarwar Jan commit sex crimes against juveniles while on U.S. Defense Department facilities?

-- Did Jan use U.S. government funds to procure his victims?

-- Why was Jan reportedly dismissed as district police chief? Why was he reappointed?

Instead of getting answers, King said he saw action being taken against Brezler.

"The only person who's being penalized, or potentially punished, is the person who tried to warn the Marines," the congressman said. "I cannot possibly understand it."

Brezler's case has been taken up by the Marine Corps Times, the newspaper that first broke the story of the major's legal troubles.

"Brezler's treatment sends the messages that in the Marine Corps there's no room for honest mistakes," the Times wrote in a recent editorial.

"He's the sort of officer the Corps needs more of," it read.

Buckley Sr, father of the slain Marine, agrees: "They should be giving him a medal, not prosecuting him."

The Marine Corps declined to comment further on Brezler's case. Piccoli said the silence was vital to avoid influencing the officers the major is expected to face at his board of inquiry next month.

The hearing, which could take a few hours or a few days depending on the number of witnesses called, will end with an immediate recommendation by the board.

Depending on the evidence presented, there are several options open to the board. The three officers could recommend either an honorable discharge or a less-than-honorable discharge. The latter could result in a loss of veteran's benefits, including free health care.

The Secretary of the Navy would need to give a final stamp of approval on that decision. If the board recommends no action against Brezler, the decision is final.

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