Obama gives military one year to curb sex assault

President Obama on Friday gave the military a year to show progress in curbing sexual assault within its ranks.

If it fails to make progress, Obama warned he would support additional reforms.

Obama’s decision was criticized by Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandOvernight Defense: Two US service members killed in Afghanistan | Trump calls on other nations to take up fight against ISIS | Pentagon scraps billion-dollar missile defense program Sanders targets gig economy as part of new labor plan Senate Democrats push for arms control language in defense policy bill MORE (D-N.Y.), who led a congressional effort this year to impose deep reforms on the military’s justice system.

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“I do not want to wait another year to enact the one reform survivors have asked for in removing commanders with no legal training and conflicts of interest from the decision of whether or not to prosecute a rape or sexual assault,” she said.

It was hailed by Gillibrand’s chief opponent, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who backed more modest reforms.

“I agree with him that we should give these significant reforms the time they need to succeed," she said in a statement. "And I too, plan to spend the next year holding commanders accountable, and ensuring that these historic reforms are implemented forcefully and effectively.” 

Obama said he would direct Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey to “continue their efforts to make substantial improvements with respect to sexual assault prevention and response, including to the military justice system.”

He said he wanted a “full-scale review of their progress” in December 2014.

“If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks and protect our brave service members who stand guard for us every day at home and around the world,” Obama said.

The president’s comments suggest he could potentially support Gillibrand’s proposal to strip the decision to prosecute sexual assault cases outside the chain of command.

But the year-long timeline Obama outline is substantially longer than Gillibrand wants; she is expecting a vote on her legislation in the Senate early next year.

The White House stayed silent on Gillibrand's legislation throughout the year and declined to take a position while it was debated in the Senate. 

Gillibrand's controversial proposal did not receive a vote on the floor, and it was not included among the host of reforms in the Defense authorization bill sent to Obama’s desk late Thursday.

Pentagon leaders vigorously opposed Gillibrand’s measure, and they received backing from McCaskill and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

But Gillibrand’s proposal also earned bipartisan support from 53 senators, including three-quarters of Democrats and conservative Republicans like Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.).

The defense bill includes a number of changes to the military’s judicial code.

It strips commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts, overhauls the way victims are treated in pre-trial proceedings, establishes a special victims counsel for sexual assault survivors, requires discharges for those convicted of sexual assault and makes retaliation against victims a crime.

The major legislative push on this issue came in response to a series of incidents this year that drew broad outrage and a Pentagon report estimating 26,000 cases of “unwanted sexual contact” in 2012, an increase of one-third from 2010.

Gillibrand and her supporters argue that the provisions in the Defense bill are positive, but they will not do enough to tackle the problem of sexual assault within the ranks.

They say that victims aren’t reporting their crimes because they don’t believe the current system will give them justice and fear retaliation.

There are signs that the reporting of sexual assaults is on the rise in the military. The Pentagon said last month that reports of sexual assault rose 46 percent to 3,553 in the first nine months of fiscal year 2013, which defense officials said was an indication more victims are coming forward.

—This story was updated at 11:35 a.m.