May 8 (Bloomberg) -- Democratic lawmakers and victims’ advocates said they will push to strip U.S. military commanders of the power to prosecute sexual assaults after a Pentagon survey found attacks jumped 35 percent over the past two years.
The survey released yesterday estimated that 26,000 active-duty troops experienced unwanted sexual contact over the last year, up from 19,300 two years earlier. It was issued days after an Air Force officer in charge of sexual-assault prevention was charged with sexual battery, prompting a vow from President Barack Obama to “do everything we can to root this out.”
“If people have engaged in this behavior, they should be prosecuted,” Obama said yesterday during a news conference in Washington. “They’ve got to be held accountable.”
The Pentagon report and the May 5 arrest of Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski intensified debate over whether the military does enough to protect personnel from sexual assaults. While Obama pledged to “exponentially step up our game” to combat a problem that has plagued the military for decades, several lawmakers questioned whether the administration was going far enough to ensure justice for victims.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, said she will push to prosecute sexual assault cases outside the military’s chain of command so that victims will be more comfortable in coming forward.
“They don’t feel that there is an atmosphere by which they can report safely,” Gillibrand told Air Force leaders at a hearing yesterday. “They’re afraid of retaliation. They’re afraid of being treated poorly by their commanders, being treated poorly by their colleagues.”
About a dozen House and Senate lawmakers from both parties have been invited to the White House for a meeting tomorrow to discuss the issue, according to a person familiar with the invitation who asked not to be identified because the meeting hadn’t been announced.
The lawmakers, who weren’t named, will meet with Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen, the chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, the person said. The president is scheduled to travel to Texas tomorrow and won’t attend the meeting, the person said.
In the House, a bill sponsored by Representative Jackie Speier, a California Democrat, would create an independent office within the Defense Department to handle assault cases.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel resisted that idea, even as he announced steps that he said would help curb assaults.
“The ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure,” Hagel said at a Pentagon news conference held to announce the annual report on sexual assaults.
“We do have to go back and review every aspect of that chain of command, of that accountability, and some things do need to be changed,” Hagel said. “But I don’t think taking it away, the responsibility -- ultimate responsibility -- away from the military, I think that would just weaken the system.”
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley echoed Hagel’s view at a Senate hearing, saying, “Commanders need to be part of the good order and discipline for their units.”
Krusinski, who had served as chief of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch since February, was arrested in Arlington, Virginia, where he “approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks,” according to an Arlington County police report.
The 41-year-old officer was removed from the job pending an investigation, according to an Air Force statement. He was released after posting a $5,000 bond, according to Dustin Sternbeck, an Arlington County police spokesman.
He’s is scheduled for arraignment tomorrow in Arlington County General District Court in Virginia. Efforts to locate Krusinski for comment weren’t successful.
The arrest in the Washington suburb where the Pentagon is located provides “dramatic evidence of the need for the Department of Defense to act swiftly and decisively to address the plague of sexual assaults in the military,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat, said yesterday at the hearing he held with Air Force leaders.
“It is unacceptable that this occurs anywhere at any time in our Air Force and we will not quit working on this problem,” General Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said yesterday at Levin’s hearing.
The Pentagon’s anonymous survey of active-duty troops found that 26,000 reported experiencing unwanted sexual conduct last year, amounting to an average of 71 incidents per day. A survey two years earlier estimated 19,300 such incidents. In 2006, the only other time the survey was conducted, there were an estimated 34,200 incidents.
About 6.1 percent of active-duty women and 1.2 percent of active-duty men surveyed said they had experienced unwanted sexual contact within the previous 12 months.
Those estimates dwarf the number of cases reported each year. Victims have said they’re afraid of coming forward, partly because they feared a risk their career. There were 3,374 reported cases of assault in 2012, a 5.7 percent increase from the previous year, the Defense Department said yesterday.
“This report tells us we’ve got more work to do,” said Major General Gary Patton, director of the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
Hagel, announcing a series of measures, said he would hold military commanders accountable “at every level,” improve the treatment of assault victims and conduct regular inspections of military workplaces to guard against “materials that create a degrading and offensive work environment.”
Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victims’ support group, said she’s “very disappointed” in Hagel’s reluctance to establish an independent authority to prosecute sexual assaults.
“The military system today is the equivalent of having mayors, governors or the president decide whether to investigate or prosecute and then have the power to simply reduce a sentence or overturn the results if they don’t like it,” Parrish said in an e-mail.
Senators Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican, and Patty Murray, a Washington Democrat, introduced legislation that they said would make it easier to prosecute assault cases. It includes a procedure already used by the Air Force to provide a Special Victims’ Counsel who can assist assault victims throughout the legal process.
Krusinski’s arrest took place with the Air Force still reeling from a scandal in which at least five military instructors were convicted of sexual assaults or unprofessional relationships with trainees or students at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas.
An investigation of the Lackland case identified 23 alleged offenders and 48 alleged victims.
Levin said he plans to include legislation on sexual assault as part of this year’s annual defense authorization bill, as early as next month.
Hagel last month proposed barring military commanders from overturning court-martial convictions of sexual assault and other major crimes.
The proposal, which requires legislation from Congress, follows lawmakers’ protests over a case at Aviano Air Base in Italy, where an aggravated sexual-assault conviction in a court-martial last year was overturned by Air Force Lieutenant General Craig Franklin, the so-called convening authority who oversaw the case. His decision fueled debate about whether the military acts forcefully enough to prosecute wrongdoing.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, said today that he supported legislation that would bar commanders from arbitrarily overturning court-martial verdicts. In a letter to Levin, Reid urged that such a provision be included in the defense spending bill for fiscal 2014.
In a potentially similar case, Air Force Lieutenant General Susan Helms, selected to become vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command, had her nomination blocked by Senator Claire McCaskill, a member of the Armed Services Committee.
McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, wants to examine Helms’s previously unpublicized decision to overturn an aggravated sexual-assault conviction for a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Welsh confirmed the reversal at yesterday’s hearing, saying Helms didn’t think the evidence to reach the verdict met the “burden of reasonable doubt.”
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