Military 'ashamed' of assaults, Obama says after meeting brass

President Obama met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the Joint Chiefs on Thursday to discuss military sexual assault as lawmakers in Congress geared up to address the issue.

Obama and Vice President Biden sat down at the White House with Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and the heads of the services on Thursday afternoon, a week after the president urged the military to take aggressive steps against sexual assault.

After the meeting, Obama told reporters sexual assault is “dangerous to our national security” and “not a sideshow.”

“This goes to the heart and the core of who we are and how effective we’re going to be,” Obama said.

Obama said the military leaders conveyed to him that they are "ashamed by some of what's happened." He asked Hagel and Dempsey to "lead a process to continue to get at this" problem, including weekly meetings by the Defense secretary.

“There’s no silver bullet to solving this problem. This is going to require a sustained effort over a long period of time,” Obama said. 

A wide swath of lawmakers have said it’s time for Congress to crack down on the way the military handles assault cases.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation on Thursday that would move the decision to prosecute major crimes into the hands of military prosecutors, rather than commanders.

Her bill would structurally change the military’s judicial code, which has, for more than two centuries, provided commanders with the authority to decide whether cases should move forward.

Gillibrand’s measure is one of several legislative proposals that have been introduced in recent weeks to address sexual assault in the ranks, and it’s among the largest changes being proposed by lawmakers.

“The political landscape has changed dramatically,” said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who joined to support Gillibrand’s bill Thursday. “I think really for the first time, people understand how bad it is, and particularly in a military that is seeking equality among the sexes. You just can’t have this going on.”

A number of incidents over the past year have created an appetite on Capitol Hill for intervening in the military’s judicial system.

More than two dozen Air Force basic training instructors were investigated for sexual misconduct last year at Lackland Air Base in Texas, and an overturned guilty verdict in an Air Force case earlier this year drew widespread condemnation.

Last week, the Pentagon released a report on sexual assault that estimated there were 26,000 assaults last year, an increase of more than a third from 2010. The report found 3,374 cases were reported.

To top it off, the Air Force sexual assault prevention chief was charged with sexual battery last week — and this week an Army assault prevention officer at Fort Hood was accused of sexual abuse.

“The recent high-profile incidents that have come up, as well as the recent report showing the number of sexual assaults increasing rather than decreasing, indicates we need a new approach to the issue,” Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) said Thursday.

Hagel has put forward a number of initiatives to address sexual assault, including a proposal to strip military commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts.

That measure has gained support in both parties and is likely to be included in this year’s Defense authorization bill.

Other proposed steps could be a more difficult lift, particularly Gillibrand’s.

The New York senator gained the support of 15 co-sponsors by day’s end Thursday, including three Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Mike Johanns (Neb.) and Chuck Grassley (Iowa).

But there is some concern about the unintended consequences of her legislation, including from some of the most active lawmakers on military sexual assault.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) said she has some concerns about whether a victim would prefer that an outside prosecutor decide whether to take up a case, as compared to a commander.

“I think this may be a solution looking for a problem,” McCaskill told The Hill Thursday.

“I have asked and asked and asked for cases where there has been a problem that commanders have not wanted to go forward,” she said. “That is typically not our problem because most commanders want all the evidence out there.”

House Armed Services Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) told The Hill that he is concerned about whether taking cases out of the chain of command could disrupt a commander’s ability to maintain good order and discipline, but said he was heading into the markup of the Defense bill with an open mind.

“I have those concerns, but I want to explore it from both sides,” McKeon said. “I don’t want to do anything rashly.”

Four House lawmakers signed on with Gillibrand to pursue the bill in the lower chamber, and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) has a similar proposal that would instead place sexual assault cases in a new, independent office.

There are a number of other proposals that will also be considered during the Defense authorization bill, from expanding an Air Force program that provides a special victims counsel to creating new whistle-blower protections for victims to strengthening requirements for sexual assault prevention provisions.

The Defense authorization bill, which sets Pentagon policy, is the likely vehicle for all of the proposals because it’s the closest thing to must-pass legislation — it has been signed into law for 51 straight years.

— This story was updated at 7:07 p.m.