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Obama orders review of military sexual assault

The new defense bill makes historic changes to the way the military deals with sexual assault, and more changes could come in 2014.
President Barack Obama speaks at an event on Dec. 4, 2013 in Washington, DC.
President Barack Obama speaks at an event on Dec. 4, 2013 in Washington, DC. 

President Obama ordered military leaders on Friday to conduct a comprehensive review of its sexual assault response and prevention programs. The president directed Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to submit a report with their findings by Dec. 1, 2014.

The move comes a day after the Senate passed a defense bill that includes historic reforms to the way the military deals with sexual assault cases and seven months after the Defense Department released a report that estimated that more than 23,000 instances of unwanted sexual contact went unreported in 2012.

Obama promised action even if the review fails to produce results. “If I do not see the kind of progress I expect,” Obama said in a statement Friday, “then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks and protect our brave service members who stand guard for us every day at home and around the world.”

Obama's announcement of the review did not include any specific objectives or metrics for measuring success.

Top military brass welcomed Obama's call for review. Hagel said in a statement that eliminating sexual assault in the military is a priority for the Pentagon and touted his efforts this year. “For months, I've been meeting weekly with the Department's senior leadership to personally review our prevention and response efforts and progress and ensure that all of these initiatives are being implemented to the fullest extent, and I will continue these weekly meetings,” the statement read.

Advocates for survivors of sexual assault believe that this review is a procrastination technique. “Unfortunately, instead of listening to active duty service members and our veterans who were sexually assaulted and then subjected to retaliation by their chain of command -- President Obama has decided to stand with the status quo and the hollow Pentagon promises of 'zero tolerance' for at least another year,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect our Defenders, said in a statement. “Our men and women in uniform and their families deserve real solutions not arbitrary delays.”

Next year will see some progress in the fight to reduce sex crimes in the military. The 2014 National Defense Authorization Act, which the Senate passed 84-15 late Thursday night, will include dozens of changes to Defense Department policy. It will criminalize retaliation against victims of sexual assault who report and prevent military commanders from overturning jury convictions, as well as make court martial preliminary hearings more similar to those in civilian courts.

The compromise bill created by key members of the House and Senate last week does not include Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposed reforms, which would have taken decision-making authority over sexual assault prosecutions out of the military’s chain of command.

Both Gillibrand and Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill have vowed to continue their efforts to reduce the number of sexual assaults in the armed forces, which a Defense Department report estimated hit some 26,000 in the 2012 fiscal year. Gillibrand has already introduced her reforms as a stand-alone bill, and McCaskill has said she will introduce her own additional slate of reforms as an alternative to Gillibrand’s plan, which she has opposed since its inception. Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, chair of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said Wednesday night on the floor that he expected votes on those bills early next year.

For Gillibrand, the President’s order is welcome but insufficient to the scope and urgency of the problem. Looking forward, she said in a statement, “[M]y immediate focus will remain on earning the votes to pass the fundamental reform needed to address the fact that last year alone an estimated 23,000 sexual assault victims lacked the confidence to report their attacks out of fear their chain of command would not act - or worse yet - retaliate against them.”

Looking forward to December 2014, she said, “I do not want to wait another year to enact the one reform survivors have asked for in removing commanders with no legal training and conflicts of interest from the decision of whether or not to prosecute a rape or sexual assault.”

“Today represents a huge win for victims of sexual assault, and for justice in America’s armed forces, but this is no finish line,” McCaskill told the Associated Press after the vote. “In the months and years ahead, vigilance will be required to ensure that these historic reforms are implemented forcefully and effectively.”

The bipartisan support for many of the sexual assault measures included in the defense bill was one of the few examples of cooperation between Republicans and Democrats at the end of this year. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s decision to change Senate rules to require a simple majority to approve presidential nominees, the so-called “nuclear option,” angered Republicans enough to slow the remaining business to a crawl.

The Senate failed just before Thanksgiving to pass its own version of the defense authorization because of a dispute over Republican-backed amendments like harsh Iran sanctions. Reid and Levin spearheaded efforts to pass the measure before an extension of last year’s bill would have expired on December 31.

This is the 52nd year in which Congress has passed a defense authorization bill. In addition to overhauling parts of the Pentagon’s sexual assault policy, the bill will make it easier to transfer prisoners held at the detention center at Guantanamo Bay to other countries.

In addition to the coming policy changes, there will be a new director of the office dedicated to dealing with sexual assault to oversee the Pentagon’s implementation of the reforms. On Monday, Hagel announced that Major General Jeffrey Snow will head the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. He will take over for the current Director, Maj. Gen. Gary Patton, in January.