Pentagon Addresses Sexual Assault, but Some in Congress Are Skeptical

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel Evan Vucci/AP

The Pentagon on Thursday introduced a set of provisions designed to crack down on sexual assaults in the military, but some lawmakers said the efforts came up short.

The seven measures—discussed with some lawmakers ahead of time, according to aides—came in a statement from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday and include creating a program that will aid sexual-assault victims during the judicial process and will direct the Pentagon's inspector general to review closed cases.

"All of these measures will provide victims additional rights, protections, and legal support, and help ensure that sexual-assault-related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally," Hagel said.

But some lawmakers panned the announcement, arguing that the Pentagon's "new" measures were actually already on the books.

"The most memorable statement from the Pentagon today was from Major General Jessica Wright [retired], who said that these new policies are best practices from policies already in existence across much of the armed services," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., according to a statement. "These aren't new policies."

Sexual assaults in the military have increasingly become a high-profile issue as the Pentagon winds down wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In 2012, according to a Pentagon report, an estimated 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact, 7,000 more than in 2010. Pentagon officials have publicly, and repeatedly, committed to eradicating the problem.

The issue has grown in political significance as well. A bipartisan group of lawmakers in the Senate, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., including Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., have backed a measure that would remove the decision to pursue charges against assailants from the military chain of command, instead placing it in the hands of military prosecutors.

The Pentagon's announcement, though, has done little to satisfy those lawmakers.

"As we have heard over and over again from the victims, and the top military leadership themselves, there is a lack of trust in the system that has a chilling effect on reporting," Gillibrand said in a statement.

Gillibrand, whose military judicial review bill lost a vote during a National Defense Authorization Act markup, plans to offer an amendment to the measure when it hits the Senate floor, aides say. But she faces opposition from members of her own party, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich.

In May, comments by President Obama meant to condemn sexual assault seemingly backfired when the president called for perpetrators to be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged." Some argued that, as commander in chief, the comments amounted to "unlawful command influence," according to The New York Times. Lawyers for those charged with assaults began to argue their clients could not get a fair trial.

Thursday's announcement underlines the Pentagon's hard line against sexual assaults and represents an effort to change the culture in the military, which is a significant barrier to halting the assaults, veterans organizations and victim advocates say.

"We're all working toward the same mission," said Kate O'Gorman, political director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of American. "[The Pentagon] definitely has an open ear toward solutions, and sometimes you have to be that watch dog that pushes the agency to do better."

But the announcement does little to satisfy lawmakers advocating for further changes to help victims who reported attacks, only to be diagnosed with a personality disorder and removed from the military. A San Antonio Express-News series highlighted the phenomenon in May, raising questions about what the paper suggested was a double betrayal: Victims are first assaulted or raped and are then labeled with a mental illness, discharged, and stripped of benefits.

"The department's new initiative does nothing to correct the record and bring justice to sexual-assault victims that were improperly discharged with personality disorder after they reported being raped," said Rep. Tim Walz, D-Minn. "It is important for Congress and the secretary to ensure these veterans receive the fair due process they have earned and deserve."

Figures don't exist to show how many military victims of sexual assault have been subject to such treatment, but the military discharged 31,000 service members because of a personality disorder from 2001 to 2010, according to a Vietnam Veterans Association of America study.

Walz offered an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would have authorized a board to review these cases, but the measure did not become part of the House bill. Walz is hoping, an aide said, that a similar bill in the Senate sponsored by Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., would be offered as an amendment, and a spokesman for Tester said the senator is planning to offer his bill.

"The truth of the matter is that the military are going to be the ones who lead the charge," O'Gorman said. "It is going to take consistent vigilance."

This article appears in the Aug. 16, 2013, edition of National Journal Daily.

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