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Sexual assault: Is the military capable of policing itself?

The Pentagon released an alarming report this week showing sexual assault in the military is on the rise, raising the question: are the country’s armed

The Pentagon released an alarming report this week showing sexual assault in the military is on the rise, raising the question: are the country’s armed services capable of policing their own ranks?

Currently, senior officers have the power to decide whether court-martial charges can be brought against subordinates. They also have the option to throw out a verdict once it’s rendered.

“It is a real travesty,” North Carolina Sen. Kay Hagan told Hardball’s Chris Matthews about the report, arguing there's too much stigma attached to reporting an assault to a commanding officer.

According to the Pentagon, the number of reported assaults in the fiscal year of 2012 rose 6% to 3,374–up from 3,192 the year before. And for active duty women, the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact (not complaints) increased about one-third from about 4.4% to 6.1% (to 26,000) over the course of two years.

Hagan, a Democrat, urged for an independent review board to oversee the cases in addition to creating a special sexual assault unit that mimics civilian criminal cases. "I don't think that it's a good idea at all that the commanding officer can actually throw out a jury verdict of somebody who has been convicted at a jury trial of serious sexual assault," she said.

msnbc contributor Goldie Taylor recounted her own experience as a former Marine 26 years ago, and how a friend in her unit was raped by an army ranger. Her friend reported the attack to a commanding officer. "Not only was this man never charged, but she was sent to a psychological unit. She was given lie detector tests and finally, her career was ended. She was absolutely humiliated."

“The very idea that this is something that should be adjudicated in the command structure is ludicrous," Taylor said. “I don’t trust the military can police itself on a subject like this."

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the increase of sexual assaults in unacceptable and acknowledged there needs to be change. "This is a cultural issue. It is a leadership issue. It is a command issue...It is my strong belief the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure. [Taking] ultimate responsibility away from the military...would just weaken the system," Hagel added.

Several legislators offered potential fixes. Democratic Sen. Kristen Gillibrand of New York wants to give prosecutors, not commanders, the power to bring cases to trial. Democratic Sen. Patty Murray of Washington and Republican Sen. Kelly Ayotte want to assign special lawyers to victims. And Republican Rep. Mike Turner of Ohio and Democratic Rep. Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts want to strip officers’ authority to dismiss court-martial convictions.

White House officials met privately on Thursday with a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Hagan, to discuss the issue and potential solutions.

President Obama spoke publicly about the report on Tuesday, saying those who engage in sexual assault in the military are “betraying the uniform.”

“I have no tolerance for this,” said Obama. “I have communicated this to the secretary of defense. We’re going to communicate this again to folks up and down the chain…I expect consequences.” He added, “If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable: prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged—period.”