Group argues Armed Services panel has not done enough on sexual assault

A victims advocacy group argues the House Armed Services Committee and its chairman have not given enough attention to the persistent problem of sexual assault in the military ahead of a Wednesday hearing on the issue.

The combative lobbying campaign  from Protect Our Defenders (POD) — which have included an online petition and Twitter campaign, as well as op-eds targeting Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) — have prompted accusations that the group has ignored important work the committee has done to try to reduce sexual assault in the military.

“How many more soldiers need to be sexually assaulted before Congress investigates Lackland and legislates fundamental reforms?” one op-ed asked, referring to a scandal at Lackland Air Base in Texas that will get its first panel hearing on Wednesday. 

Committee aides say that the tactics used by the group have been frustrating and eroded trust between the group and committee. 

The group’s advocates acknowledge they’ve been aggressive, but argue that’s the only way they could get movement from McKeon’s committee on sexual assault, an issue that’s plagued the military for decades.

“Unless we continue to just press forward, and really press, this change is not going to come. It’s not an issue that people want to hear about,” said retired Lt. Paula Coughlin-Puopolo, a member of POD’s advocacy board who was a victim and whistleblower in the military’s 1991 Tailhook sexual assault scandal.

“I don’t care if they don’t want to hear it. I don’t care if it makes them uncomfortable,” she said in an interview.

The tensions between the advocacy group and committee have cast an under-the-radar cloud over Wednesday’s hearing, where two Air Force officials and members of sexual assault victim advocacy groups are testifying.

Nancy Parrish, president of POD, said her group’s expectations for the hearing “aren’t very high” because repeated requests that the committee hear from specific witnesses have been denied. 

“I don’t have a sense that this will be a great breakthrough,” Parrish said. “But I hope I’m wrong.”

POD has planned its own media briefing Wednesday before the hearing, and some panel lawmakers say the in-your-face methods have not been productive.

“If I’ve seen any anger or emotion out of the chairman over this issue, it’s been that some people have described the military as a bunch of rapists. And this is not true,” Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.) told The Hill.

“I think you have to be a little more even-handed when you talk to the chairman. I believe he wants to do something about this issue, but as chairman he has to worry about a lot of other things in the military, too.”

Sanchez said the fact the committee was holding a hearing was “significant,” but she also downplayed her expectations after not getting much information when she visited Lackland herself last fall.

Part of the reason for the tensions surrounding Lackland is the scope of the scandal. More than 30 basic-training instructors have been investigated, with six found guilty of misconduct. 

The scandal, with its 60 victims, has recalled the Tailhook scandal two decades ago, prompting charges that the Pentagon and Congress don’t take sexual assault seriously enough. In the 1991 Tailhook scandal, more than 100 Navy and Marine officers were accused of either sexual assault or improper or indecent behavior at the Tailhook organization’s conference in Las Vegas.

The Pentagon, which has launched several new initiatives on sexual assault in the past year, estimates there are 19,000 sexual assaults in the military annually, and that a majority go unreported.

“The military leadership has repeatedly investigated itself, promised to change the culture, released reports and touted supposedly new reforms — all to no avail,” said Parrish.

Parrish’s group, which was formed in 2011, has worked productively with the House Armed Services panel at times, including adding some provisions to last year’s defense authorization bill.

But a number of incidents have hampered the relationship.

There was a public disagreement last fall over a meeting that was held between Armed Services staffers and POD officials. The advocates claimed that committee aides threatened in a meeting to cut off access because they were criticizing McKeon to his hometown press ahead of the 2012 election.

The Armed Services aide involved in the exchange denies this, saying there was a complaint made over the op-ed blaming McKeon for military rapes, but that no threats were made regarding access.

Tensions first began flaring last July, as POD called on Congress to launch its own investigation into Lackland. McKeon said he would wait for the Air Force to finish its investigation before deciding on his own probe.

After McKeon brought in Air Force Secretary Michael Donley for a closed briefing, POD began to call for an open hearing. The group soon launched an “#AskBuck” campaign on Twitter and an online petition that gathered more than 10,000 signatures. It also helped gather a group of 78 House lawmakers to call for hearings on Lackland.

“The group, they go from zero to 60 pretty quickly,” said one Armed Services aide.

Another aide said the committee is concerned that advocates will portray the hearing as “the first thing we’ve ever done on sexual assault.”

“That flies in the face of a lot of history of this committee,” the aide said.

Coughlin-Puopolo, who was involved in the committee meetings, acknowledged she’s been “the most antagonistic person in the whole scenario,” but defended her actions as necessary to win reforms. 

“That’s part of my quality, that I’m angry and I’m blunt,” she said. “If we know that’s my role in this, I don’t mind that, because it really takes a lot of work to make this change.”

As the 113th Congress gets under way, the committee is still evaluating its next steps with Lackland and addressing military sexual assault, whether it’s an investigation or new measures in this year’s defense authorization bill.

There could be a fight on that front as well, as Protect Our Defenders is calling for Congress to pass Rep. Jackie Speier’s (D-Calif.) “STOP Act,” which would create an independent office to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases.

The bill had the support of 133 lawmakers in the 112th Congress, but not the heads of the Armed Services Committee, or Sanchez and Rep. Susan Davis (D-Calif.), who back a different set of reforms.