In the most aggressive and concrete steps yet taken by the Pentagon to combat sexual assault within its ranks, the department has drafted six new executive actions aimed at stemming the tide of what Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has labeled a “scourge.” But with the issue gaining steam in Congress, the proposals–which are expected to be announced next week, and reportedly do not fall in line with a large congressional contingents’ demands to deal with sexual assault cases outside the chain of command–might not be enough.
According to a draft memo obtained by The New York Times, the new proposals include accelerating complaints of sexual assault to the first general or admiral in the organization’s chain of command. Such high-level attention has been a cornerstone of Hagel and President Obama’s statements on necessary changes.
Other proposals include transferring the accused offender during an investigation (whereas currently, many victims choose to relocate); prohibiting inappropriate behavior between recruiters and trainers and their subordinates; expanding and creating victims’ advocacy programs; and independent audits of sexual assault investigations.
“The Pentagon taking action is a good thing and these are positive steps forward but it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand told msnbc in a statement. “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.”
A recent study by the Pentagon reported an estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occur each year, with only 3,000 reported to authorities, and an even smaller fraction–fewer than 250 cases–result in convictions.
Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, is calling on the Pentagon to separate sexual assault cases from the chain of command and instead employ an independent prosecutor to evaluate cases, citing retaliation against victims from their commanders.
Top military officials oppose it.
“The role of the commander should remain central,” Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a June hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “Our goal should be to hold commanders more accountable, not render them less able to help us correct the crisis. The commanders’ responsibility to preserve order and discipline is essential to effecting change.”
Secretary Hagel is also reportedly looking at a review of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, under which commanders have been allowed to overturn verdicts of sexual assault cases, including overturning convictions.
“The Secretary has made it very clear that he has not ruled out any options for improving the military’s response to sexual assault. Our prevention and response programs are not static; we continually evaluate our programs and seek ways to improve them,” Defense department spokesperson Lt. Col. Cathy Wilkinson told msnbc in a statement.
President Obama raised the issue during a Wednesday speech at California’s Camp Pendleton.
“I want you to hear it directly from me, the commander-in -chief. It undermines what this military stands for and it undermines what the Marine Corps stands for when sexual assault takes place within our units. And that’s why we are going to work together, all of us, to stop these crimes of sexual assault and uphold the honor and the integrity that defines the finest military on earth. And that message is coming all the way from the top,” Obama said.