Obama admin offers strong words, few solutions on sexual assault

President Obama is once again under fire. Pictured: He speaks at the U.S. Naval Academy commencement ceremony in Annapolis, May 24, 2013.
President Obama is once again under fire. Pictured: He speaks at the U.S. Naval Academy commencement ceremony in Annapolis, May 24, 2013.
REUTERS/Larry Downing

President Obama and Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel both strongly condemned a “scourge” of sexual assault misconduct in the military while each spoke before graduating cadets and their families ahead of Memorial Day. But with the strong rhetoric came little in the way of action as the epidemic continues to fester with more instances of alleged misconduct coming to light.

“Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal—a profound betrayal—of sacred oaths and sacred trust,” Hagel said Saturday at West Point Military Academy’s commencement ceremony. “We cannot fail the Army or America. We cannot fail each other. And we cannot fail the men and women that we lead.”

On Friday the president gave the commencement address at the United States Naval Academy, where he called sexual assault a threat to national security. “Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong,” he said. “That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes.”

Earlier in the speech, the president joked to graduates that “in keeping with tradition,” he would absolve “minor infractions” committed by students, but that their admiral “gets to decide what’s ‘minor.’” Obama drew a few laughs as he went on to offer advice to the academy grads, but his off-the-cuff remark exemplified the very culture at issue behind the military’s ongoing problem with harassment. The structure of the armed forces grants superior officers broad power to make disciplinary decisions over a wide variety of “minor infractions” or offenses, including sexual assault. Current military policy allows commanding officers to decide whether or not an alleged sexual assault is investigated and to unilaterally overturn a military jury verdict.

Hundreds of years of military tradition and a record of misogyny within the military make it difficult to tell whether the strong condemnations and current investigations signal the start of real change. Neither the president nor Secretary Hagel has supported any of the proposals legislators have made to change the way the military handles sexual assault. Just this week, a staff member at West Point was accused of secretly filming female cadets, and late Friday NBC News reported that an Army battalion commander had condoned widespread sexual misconduct at a base in Alaska, although no allegations of rape have been made in that investigation.

Women in the House and Senate have been leading the charge to reduce the number of sexual assaults committed in the military, which the Pentagon estimated at 26,000 in the past year. New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat, has proposed that sexual assault cases be removed from the chain of command, which could make it easier for survivors to report assaults and reduce retaliation against those who report crimes. Secretary Hagel has opposed this solution, although he ordered all soldiers involved in sexual assault prevention programs undergo retraining and recertification and has committed to study the issue further. Even some of Gillibrand’s Senate colleagues indicate the measure cannot become law.

Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill introduced a bill on Thursday that would force soldiers convicted of sexual assault or rape out of the armed services, although it would keep investigations and prosecutions within the chain of command. Sen. Susan Collins, the Maine Republican and a co-sponsor of both Gillibrand’s and McCaskill’s bills, acknowledged that the problem is too large and too pressing to not be pragmatic. “What is not acceptable is for us to take half measures, or to do nothing, or pass something that cannot become law,” she said.

Hagel promised on May 16 to hold weekly meetings on what progress is being made to address the problem, but no further information on those plans has emerged.