Congress orders Pentagon to review sexual misconduct policies

Responding to increasing complaints about the Pentagon's policies regarding sexual misconduct, Congress has ordered the Defense Department to develop a comprehensive response and prevention policy, and to review how sexual assault cases are handled by the military justice system.

The $447.2 billion fiscal 2005 Defense authorization bill, which passed the House and Senate last week, requires the Pentagon to review the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Manual for Courts-Martial, and to propose changes for how sexual offenses will be addressed by March 2005. The bill is headed to President Bush for final approval.

The authorization bill requires a militarywide policy based on a report from the Task Force Report on Care for Victims of Sexual Assault by the end of the year, but Pentagon officials must first develop a single definition of sexual assault. By March 1, 2005, the five branches of the military must modify their policies to conform with the Pentagon's recommendations.

The authorization bill also extends the Defense Task Force on Sexual Harassment and Violence at the Military Service Academies by an additional 18 months so that the panel of civilian experts and senior military personnel can examine the issue of sexual assault across the military. But that will occur after the panel completes its review of the Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., which began last week.

"This dual track approach will help keep all groups focused in order to prevent tunnel vision," said Brig. Gen. K.C. McClain, commander of the Pentagon's Joint Task Force on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response.

McClain's task force is in charge of turning the recommendations from last month's closed-door conference on handling sexual harassment and assault into Pentagon policy.

An Oct. 6 summit, involving McClain and senior Pentagon officials, was supposed to result in new Defense Department policies that would help the armed forces prevent and respond to sexual assault, but no information has been released.

Members of the Congressional Caucus for Women's Issues pushed for the amendments.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., asked for the service academies task force extension and expansion and for the review on how the military justice system handles sexual assault. Reps. Louise Slaughter, D-N.Y., and Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., spearheaded the amendments to require an inclusive Pentagon policy for handling and preventing sexual assaults.

According to a congressional aide, if the Defense Department is not able to come up with a better means of providing aid to soldiers who have been sexually assaulted, update its definition of sexual assault, modernize the code of military justice, and create privacy provisions of victims, then the caucus will work to get Congress to rewrite the Pentagon's policy.

The Miles Foundation, a nonprofit organization that provides services to victims of violence associated with the military, was quick to point out that the defense authorization bill did not include provisions for an Office of the Victims' Advocate at the Pentagon. The National Defense Appropriations Act, which was signed by the president Aug. 5, included $1.8 million for the office and $3 million for victim advocates within the military departments.

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