The White House and lawmakers took steps Thursday to address the staggering rise of sexual assaults in the military following a chilling Pentagon report released earlier in the week.
Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, led a meeting at the White House on the matter with a dozen bipartisan members of Congress in attendance.
On Tuesday, a report from the Defense Department estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in the military happened in the 2012 fiscal year alone, ranging from rape to unwanted sexual contact. Out of that number, fewer than 3,400 incidents were reported.
To help combat the issue, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Chairwoman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, plans to introduce legislation next week to change the way the military handles allegations of sex crimes.
“There’s a huge gap between how many incidents there are and how many people have the courage and ability and feel that they will be taken seriously and not be marginalized or retaliated against,” Gillibrand told msnbc’s Lawrence O’Donnell during an exclusive interview on Thursday. “So we need to increase the reporting and that’s what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to write a bill that will change how men and women who are assaulted report these crimes so they feel that justice could be done.”
She proposed making it “more parallel to the civilian system.” Right now, senior commanders with zero legal training have the power to decide whether an offender should be prosecuted, to what extent, and what happens post-trial.
Gillibrand blamed part of the problem on major conflicts of interest within the chain of command, saying victims don’t feel comfortable speaking out under current conditions. “They don’t feel that there is an atmosphere by which they can report safely,” she said at Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “They’re afraid of retaliation. They’re afraid of being treated poorly by their commanders, being treated poorly by their colleagues.”
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted “we know we’ve got big problems” during a press conference on Tuesday. But he remained a hold-out on keeping these investigations within the military chain of command. “We do have to go back and review every aspect of that chain of command, of that accountability, and some things do need to be changed,” Hagel said. “But I don’t think taking it away, the responsibility–ultimate responsibility–away from the military, I think that would just weaken the system.”
On Thursday, the man who had led the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention and response unit, Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, was arraigned on a misdemeanor sexual battery charge. He’s accused of groping a woman in a parking lot in Virginia just two days before the Pentagon report was released.
President Obama said he has “no tolerance” for this kind of behavior in the military and called for immediate reform. “If it is happening inside our military, then whoever carries it out is betraying the uniform that they’re wearing,” Obama said on Tuesday following news of the report. “For those who are in uniform who have experienced sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I’ve got their backs. I will support them.”