May 18 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he’s willing to consider taking away the power of military commanders to decide on prosecuting sexual assaults within their ranks, a move some lawmakers have proposed.
“We’re looking at everything,” Hagel said yesterday at a Pentagon news conference. “We’re not taking anything off the table.”
The defense secretary’s willingness to contemplate changing the Uniform Code of Military Justice to turn over sexual-assault cases to independent prosecutors signaled a softening of his position from last week, amid escalating demands for action to curb what Hagel yesterday called a “huge problem.”
“The ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure,” Hagel had said at a May 7 news conference, describing that as a view shared within the military.
Pressure is growing in Congress to change the way the military investigates and prosecutes sexual assaults after a Pentagon survey suggested a surge in crimes and three military officials who work in sexual-abuse prevention programs were removed from their posts after allegations of crimes.
Hagel issued a memo yesterday ordering all services to come up with proposals by May 24 to revamp the credentialing and training of sexual-assault response coordinators and military recruiters. He also met yesterday for the first time with a congressionally mandated advisory panel that will recommend strategies to combat sexual assaults.
Three confidential polls of active-duty troops taken in 2006, 2010 and 2012 produced varying results that show the challenge of measuring the extent of sexual assault in the ranks, along with stopping it. A Defense Department report last week suggested military men and women experienced 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact last year, a 35 percent increase over two years. The previous survey in 2010 had shown a 44 percent plunge since 2006.
A bill introduced May 16 by a bipartisan group of senators would shift from commanders to independent prosecutors the authority to investigate troops for any major crimes punishable by at least a year in prison. Lawmakers said many victims of sexual assaults are too frightened to report the abuse to their own commanders, who may discourage them from pursuing their complaints.
Hagel declined to take a position yesterday on any legislative proposal, and military leaders continued to express reservations about measures that risk weakening the chain of command.
‘Life and Death’
“In our system, we give a commander life-and-death decision-making authority,” said Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who joined Hagel at the news conference. “I can’t imagine going forward to solve this issue without commanders involved.”
Under the existing system, commanders decide whether to bring charges, choose the military jury for a court-martial and can reduce or overturn a sentence.
General Mark Welsh, the U.S. Air Force chief of staff, said yesterday he’s willing to consider a change in prosecution authority, if it’s limited to sexual assaults and doesn’t cover other major crimes.
“I personally am open to that,” Welsh told reporters at a separate news conference.
Commanders a Benefit
While Welsh said he supports taking away the authority to overturn verdicts imposed in military courts, he said “there’s some real benefit” to letting commanders have the power to reduce penalties.
Welsh said he would oppose taking other crimes away from the chain of command because of the need to instill order and discipline. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat and chief sponsor of the legislation, said she included all major crimes in her bill to ensure that some sexual assaults aren’t wrongly categorized as other offenses by commanders seeking to retain jurisdiction.
Hagel, vowing to fix the problem of sexual assaults in the military, repeated President Barack Obama’s statement after meeting with Pentagon leaders earlier this week that there’s no “silver bullet” solution.
Dempsey said the problem may stem in part from a “forgiving” attitude toward wrongdoing in the military after more than a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.
“You might argue that we’ve become a little too forgiving because, you know, if a perpetrator shows up at a court-martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, you know, there is certainly the risk that we might -- we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime,” Dempsey said.
Hagel said alcohol is also “a very big factor” in many sexual-assault cases.
Welsh apologized yesterday for a comment he made last week at a Senate hearing suggesting the problem stems in part from a “hook-up mentality” within the youth culture.
“Roughly 20 percent of the young women who come into the Department of Defense in the Air Force report that they were sexually assaulted in some way before they came into the military,” Welsh said at the May 7 hearing. “So they come in from a society where this occurs. Some of it is the hookup mentality of junior high even and high school students now.”
Welsh said yesterday he was attempting to answer a question about the need to change the culture and that his remarks were misinterpreted.
“In view of the fact there are victims who took what I said as blaming them, boy, I am sorry for that,” he said. “My record on this issue is crystal clear. There is absolutely no place for this.”
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