Pentagon chief 'open to all options’ on sex assault prosecutions

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is “open to any and all options” to tackle sexual assault in the military, including changes to the military’s judicial structure, Pentagon press secretary George Little said Monday.

The Defense secretary said last week that he was opposed to taking sexual assault cases out of the chain of command, a move proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Jackie Speier (D-Calif.). Hagel said it was his "strong belief" that "ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure."

While Little on Monday said Hagel “stands by his comments,” he also said the secretary wasn’t ruling out the chain-of-command proposal or any other plans put forward in Congress.

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“He ruled out nothing, specifically,” Little said when asked about removing cases from the chain of command.

Late last week, Little also pushed back on a New York Times report that said Hagel was expected to mount “fierce resistance” to Gillibrand’s proposal.

“Mr. Hagel made clear that he has not ruled out any options for improving the military’s response to sexual assault,” Little wrote in a letter to the editor.

President Obama and Hagel last week called for the military to do a better job of curbing sexual assault within its ranks, on the heels of a department report that estimated there were 26,000 assaults last year, an increase of more than a third from 2010.

Hagel has already proposed one change to the military’s judicial code that would strip commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts during a post-trial revew in most criminal cases.

There has been widespread outrage over an Air Force case earlier this year in which a sexual assault guilty verdict was tossed out.

But Hagel and other military leaders have thus far resisted the larger structural change of taking sexual assault cases out of the military’s chain of command, where a commander has wide authority to decide how to prosecute cases.

While that proposal still faces an uphill climb to gain widespread support in Congress, three lawmakers endorsed it on Sunday, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee.

Reps. Tammy Duckworth (D-Ill.) and Tulsi Gabbard (D-Hawaii), the first two female combat veterans elected to Congress, also said they supported the change.

— Carlo Muñoz contributed to this report.

Updated at 1:22 p.m.