Pentagon orders new measures to combat sexual assault

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the military services to implement what the Pentagon calls “best practices” for combating sexual assault. DoD says the measures build on actions Hagel took earlier this year, but the department’s most persistent critics on the issue dismissed them as “baby steps.”

Defense officials say the seven changes Hagel directed this week were the product of an ongoing examination of military programs to prevent and respond to sexual assault cases, and build on changes Hagel ordered this past May.

“The bottom line is, sexual assault is not tolerated, not condoned, it’s not ignored,” said Jessica Wright, the acting undersecretary of Defense for personnel and readiness. “And everyone in the department, from the newest enlistee to the secretary of Defense and everyone in between, are responsible to uphold our values and continue an environment of dignity and respect for all.”

In general, Defense officials said, Hagel’s directive aimed to take the best efforts already underway in the military services and make them common across DoD.

Among the changes:

  • Building on an Air Force program to provide legal representation to sexual assault survivors, Hagel told each service to create a special victims advocacy program to provide independent advice and representation through the entire military justice process by November of this year.
  • The Pentagon’s general counsel will draft an executive order for the president’s signature, changing court martial procedures so that crime victims have input into the sentencing phase of court proceedings.
  • Commanders will be given extra guidance to transfer accused military members to other units so that victims aren’t required to work alongside their alleged attackers.
  • Hagel told Wright to develop consistent policies across the military against inappropriate relationships between trainers and trainees.
  • Hagel asked the DoD inspector general to begin procedures to reexamine closed sexual assault investigations across the military services.
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Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, the director of the Pentagon’s Joint Staff, said the changes aren’t DoD’s last word on responding to sexual assault, but rather the latest product of an ongoing examination.

“Over recent months, we’ve met frequently and looked both in and outside of DoD, taking best practices from across the services and from our communities,” he said. “Where we’ve found best practices, we have moved to make them common practices throughout our services. These initiatives are a product of that process. In particular, our collaboration with the Senate and House Armed Services Committees and other members of the Senate and the House provides constructive direction. In fact, a number of these initiatives are also represented in ongoing congressional efforts.”

Leaders of the defense committees on Capitol Hill generally praised the changes. Rep. Buck McKeon (R-Calif.), the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, called them “vital steps” for culture change.

But the Pentagon’s fiercest critics on sexual assault were unmoved. Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) said DoD needs “sweeping changes, not the best of what’s already not working. I continue to be underwhelmed by the military’s baby steps on this issue,” she said in a statement. “Overall, there is nothing here that will significantly curb sexual predators and their behavior, nothing that will guarantee the safety of victims who report abuse, and nothing that will fix the ongoing problems keeping cases inside the chain of command. The Pentagon has missed yet another opportunity to fulfill its promises of zero tolerance and improved justice.”

And the Service Women’s Action Network, an advocacy group, said the announcement shows the Pentagon is “still wading in the shallow end” of the sexual assault issue. That group also backs a measure being pushed by Speier and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would remove sexual assault prosecutions entirely from the military chain of command.

The Pentagon and the leaders of the Congressional armed services committees have resisted that proposal. Scaparrotti said DoD has already taken several recent steps to give victims the ability to report crimes without relying on their own direct commanders.

“Soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines know that today, there’s about 10 avenues for them to report. And they also know that when they do report, it immediately goes to law enforcement, and it’s handled by them. And they know that that’s outside the chain of the command of their commanders, in the unit that they are in. So there’s a number of initiatives that have been taken to make sure that we begin to take action, so that the jurisdictional procedures are outside of that exact chain of command in terms of how we conduct the investigation when we prosecute crimes. For instance, the victim advocacy program today gives them basically a multidiscipline team with a lawyer that is an advocate for that victim. So those are the things that we’re doing to address some of the issues with trust. We have to attack that because, frankly, we want increased unrestricted reporting, and we can only get that if can work at the trust for a victim. I think if you look specifically in this last year, the focus, the energy of the chain of command, our service members know that we’re serious about this in units.”

Another of the changes Hagel ordered is designed to give senior military leaders more oversight over sexual assaults in their own subordinate units. Effective Nov. 1, all reports of sexual assaults and status updates will go to the first general or admiral in the victim’s chain of command.

“It’s so that we ensure immediate oversight at an experienced level for the actions that take place from the point that we know of the report and beyond, to include, at times later that’ll be determined, that they may look at it in a holistic sense as a review, to ensure that not only the report but actions after it are appropriate and following our procedures,” Scaparrotti said.

In a separate memo this week, Hagel gave commanders some direction designed to blunt the unintended consequences in the military justice system of some remarks President Barack Obama delivered back in May.

“If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable,” Obama said in response to a question during a May 7 joint press briefing with South Korea’s president. “Fired, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”

But since then, some defendants in military courts martial have successfully argued that because Obama is commander in chief of the Armed Forces, that statement represented undue command influence over the military justice system. In at least one case, a military judge cited the statement in dismissing sexual assault charges against a soldier in South Carolina.

“The comments made by the president did result in an impact in some of the cases that were ongoing, from the view of the judges involved in those,” Scaparrotti said.

“And as a result, we believed it was necessary to make a statement, simply to ensure that commanders understood that they act independently, based on the merits of a case, and to ensure that there’s no taint in any of the cases that are ongoing now. The letter’s clear. It’s gone out to everyone. I really don’t expect any issue. I think commanders have and will continue to act independently, in line with our justice system.”

The memo, obtained this week by The Associated Press and first reported by The New York Times, tells commanders that even though public officials might condemn certain crimes, those statements aren’t intended to sway the outcome of any particular case.

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