The top commanders of the Marine Corps U.S. forces in Afghanistan are investigating a video that purports to show U.S. Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban after Defense Secretary Leon Panetta ordered a probe into behavior he described is "utterly deplorable."
"I condemn it in the strongest possible terms," Panetta said Thursday of the actions depicted in a video released a day earlier. "This conduct is entirely inappropriate for members of the United States military and does not reflect the standards or values our armed forces are sworn to uphold. Those found to have engaged in such conduct will be held accountable to the fullest extent."
Spokesman Jay Carney said that as a legal matter, the White House won't pass judgment until the details are discovered, but that the "apparent" activity is deplorable and regrettable.
In the video, four men in Marine uniforms and combat gear are shown exposing their genitals and urinating on three dead bodies. One of the deceased has large blood stain on his chest.
The person who posted the video included a description that reads "scout sniper team 4 with 3rd battalion 2nd marines out of camp lejeune peeing on dead talibans."
One of the service members can be heard saying in the recording, "Have a great day, buddy."
On Thursday, a Marine official said the branch had identified two of the four Marines in the video, and that all four were members of the 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marines, which returned to its home base in North Carolina last fall after a tour in Afghanistan. The official said not all are still with that battalion.
Wednesday, the Marine Corps released a statement saying it had been made aware of the video and had not yet verified its origin or authenticity, but the actions portrayed in it were inconsistent with the corps' values and "not indicative of the character of the Marines in our Corps."
On Thursday, Marines Corps Commandant James F. Amos said he viewed the video "apparently" showing Marines "desecrating" the bodies of several dead Taliban in Afghanistan and had requested the Naval Criminal Investigative Service "pull together a team of their very best agents" to investigate "every aspect of the filmed event."
Amos said he is also assigning a Marine general officer and senior attorney to head up an internal, preliminary inquiry to determine the facts, which will be used to decide "appropriate next steps."
"I want to be clear and unambiguous, 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," the general said.
"Rest assured that the institution of the Marine Corps will not rest until the allegations and the events surrounding them have been resolved," he continued. We remain fully committed to upholding the Geneva Convention, the laws of war and our own core values."
John Ullyot, a former Marine who served as a Republican spokesman on the Senate Armed Services Committee during the Abu Ghraib scandal, said the alleged incident raises questions about the training lapses and lack of supervision that allowed it to happen.
But, Ullyot added, while it's unbecoming of the Marines and U.S. military, it also demonstrates how a few bad apples can spoil a much larger recipe.
"It shows how, in the present era of instant communication and YouTube, a tactical judgment blunder by a small number of troops can become a big strategic problem in a matter of a few hours," he said in an email.
The incident comes as the U.S. is trying to develop negotiations for reconciliation with the Taliban, whose spokesman on Thursday denounced the act as "barbaric" but not likely to impact planned peace talks.
"Over the past 10 years, there have been hundreds of similar cases that were not revealed," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahed was quoted as saying by news agency AFP.
"I don't think this new issue will affect negotiations, which at this stage are mainly about prisoner exchange," Mujahed said.
The U.S. is planning a major push to jump-start peace talks. The Washington Post reported Thursday that a senior Obama administration official said the U.S. will resume talks with the Taliban as soon as Afghan President Hamid Karzai gives the go-ahead.
A senior administration official confirmed to Fox News on Thursday that senior diplomat Marc Grossman, who initiated secret meetings with the insurgents last year, is headed to the region this weekend to try to meet with Karzai to see what he wants to do next on reconciliation.
One other barrier to talks is the Taliban's desire to communicate with the U.S. only, and avoid the Afghan government directly.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking Thursday, said she was totally dismayed by the story but with respect to the implication on the talks, "the United States remains strongly committed to helping build a secure, peaceful, prosperous, democratic future for the people of Afghanistan. And we will continue to support efforts that will be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned to pursue the possibility of reconciliation and peace."