Pentagon unveils new measures to combat sexual assaults in military

The Pentagon on Thursday unveiled a series of new initiatives designed to address the problem of sexual assault in the military and give greater protections to victims.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel announced more than a half-dozen new steps the Pentagon was taking to tackle sexual assault, including expanding a victims' advocacy program across all the services, giving victims input in the sentencing phase of a trial, making it easier to transfer those accused of assault and more clearly defining inappropriate relationships involving recruiters and instructors.

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"All of these measures will provide victims additional rights, protections, and legal support, and help ensure that sexual assault-related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally," Hagel said in a statement Thursday. "We are all accountable to fix this problem, and we will fix it together."

The Pentagon is announcing these actions under some pressure from Congress, which is debating whether sexual assault cases should be removed from the military's chain of command. The military vehemently opposes such a change.

The Senate is poised to take up a measure from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), which would give the decision to prosecute cases to military prosecutors, rather than commanders.

Gillibrand said Thursday that the Pentagon’s moves were “positive steps forward,” but that they didn’t go far enough to solve the problem.

“As we have heard over and over again from the victims, and the top military leadership themselves, there is a lack of trust in the system that has a chilling effect on reporting,” Gillibrand said in a statement. “It is time for Congress to seize the opportunity, listen to the victims and create an independent, objective and non-biased military justice system worthy of our brave men and women's service.”

The White House, which is being lobbied by Gillibrand to support her proposal, said Thursday’s measures were addressing President Obama’s “call to action” to stop military sexual assault.

“The initiatives announced today are substantial, but only a step along a path toward eliminating this crime from our military ranks,” White House press secretary Jay Carney said in a statement. “The president expects this level of effort to be sustained not only in the coming weeks and months, but as far into the future as necessary.”

Many of the initiatives that the Pentagon rolled out on Thursday are already proposals from Congress that were included in the Defense authorization bills that have passed the full House and Senate Armed Services Committee.

Congress has called for sweeping changes to the way the military handles sexual assault in the wake of a report that estimated there were 26,000 assaults last year.

The military has also faced a series of high-profile incidents involving sexual assault in their ranks this year, the latest involving Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, who is facing trial on charges of forcible sodomy and adultery.

But lawmakers have been divided over whether to remove cases from the chain of command, which would mark the biggest structural change to the military’s judicial system in decades.

Military officials, as well as senators including Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), say that the cases must remain with commanders so they can be held accountable.

Gillibrand has been steadily gaining the support of her colleagues ahead of the debate on the Defense authorization bill, where she plans to offer her measure as an amendment. Her office says that 46 senators have pledged their support.

Lawmakers praised Thursday’s announcement as a positive step forward, even if many of the changes made were already coming down the pipeline through congressional action.

“I think it’s wise for our military leaders to get on this train rather than get run over by it,” McCaskill said in a statement. “Today’s announcement has little bearing on the fact that Congress will soon mandate a host of historic reforms—but it’s evidence that the Defense Department is now treating this problem with the seriousness that we expect, and that survivors deserve.”

Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, director of the Joint Staff, told reporters at a briefing that the new measures were the result of looking at “best practices” from the military services, as well as collaboration with Congress.

In addition to the new measures Hagel announced Thursday, the Defense secretary had already agreed to a proposal in the spring to prevent military commanders from overturning guilty verdicts in a post-trial review.

Here’s the full list of measures from the Pentagon being adopted on Thursday:

  • Creating a legal advocacy program in each military service that will provide legal representation to sexual assault victims throughout the judicial process.
  • Ensuring that pretrial investigative hearings of sexual assault-related charges are conducted by judge advocates general (JAG) officers.
  • Providing commanders with options to reassign or transfer a member who is accused of committing a sexual assault or related offense in order to eliminate continued contact while respecting the rights of both victims and the accused.
  • Requiring timely follow-up reports on sexual assault incidents and responses to be given to the first general or flag officer within the chain of command.
  • Directing the DOD's inspector general to regularly evaluate closed sexual assault investigations.
  • Standardizing prohibitions on inappropriate behavior between recruiters and trainers and their recruits and trainees across the department.
  • Developing and proposing changes to the Manual for Courts-Martial that would allow victims to give input during the sentencing phase of courts-martial.

This story was updated at 2:51 p.m.