Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 11.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan speaks during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on April 11. Andrew Harnik/AP

Acting Pentagon Chief Responds to Continuing Academy Sexual Assaults

Prompted by Sen. Martha McSally’s dramatic personal testimony, Shanahan created a new task force to recommend changes.

Last month’s dramatic revelation by Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., that she had been sexually assaulted during her military service as a pioneering pilot has prompted some action at the Pentagon.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, in a departmentwide memo released on Monday, cited McSally’s tale in announcing a new Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigation Task Force.

“In my testimony during the fiscal 2020 Posture Hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 19, 2019, and in my direct engagement with Senator Martha McSally, I pledged to do more, and I intend to carry out this commitment,” Shanahan wrote to Defense component managers and service chiefs. The results, released in January, of the 2017-2018 Report on Sexual Assault and Harassment in the Military Academies “are unacceptable,” he added.

That report found that unwanted sexual contact at the academies for both males and females had increased over the previous year, but that a flat rate of 12 percent of “victimized cadets and midshipmen” had filed reports.

The task force will review the “investigative and accountability processes involved in sexual assault cases,” Shanahan’s memo said. It will be led by Dr. Elizabeth P. Van Winkle, executive director of the Office of Force Resiliency, along with the judge advocates general of the military departments and the staff judge advocate to the commandant of the Marine Corps.

The goal is to “make recommendations that will improve existing processes to address sexual assault, while ensuring our formations, our communities, the rights of the victim and the accused, and the integrity of the legal process are protected. Our approach to eliminate sexual assault is holistic and includes efforts to prevent this crime, support and care for our victims, and ensure a robust and comprehensive military justice process,” Shanahan said in the memo, dated March 27, requiring an interim report by April 30, 2019.

Shanahan said he is “mindful” of past department and congressional panels addressing the problem, including the ongoing five-year effort of the Defense Advisory Committee on the Investigation, Prosecution and Defense of Sexual Assault in the Armed Forces. He expects the new task force to incorporate that work but also “explore new opportunities to enhance the military justice system,” including potential changes to policy and/or law.

The department will submit a final report to McSally and other members of the Armed Services committees, he said.

Meanwhile, the vexing issue of whether to take decisions on processing sexual assault accusations out of the chain of command was taken up at an April 2 House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee hearing. Army Lt. Gen. Charles Pede said commanders must be responsible for addressing the problem, “protecting the victims and guarding the rights of the accused,” the Pentagon reported.

“The notion that stripping commanders of authority over serious crimes will reduce crime [and] result in more or better prosecutions or higher conviction rates is simply not supported by any empirical evidence,” Pede said. “In the multitude of congressionally mandated studies, where diverse panels of experts have exhaustively examined the military justice system, hearing from hundreds of witnesses who gave thousands of hours of testimony, they reported back to you one critical consistent conclusion: that commanders should not be removed from the justice system.”

The Military Justice Improvement Act, pushed in the past by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would take the decision-making out of the chain of command and give it to qualified specialists.