Pentagon Readies Sex-Assault Rules to Act Before Congress

The Pentagon is preparing to issue policies aimed at curbing sexual assaults while stopping short of measures some members of Congress are seeking to impose.

After months of criticism from lawmakers over a lax response to sexual attacks in the military, the Defense Department is circulating proposals for executive action, including requiring that senior officers be alerted to assault allegations and creating a “victim advocacy” program.

The proposals are being prepared as the military and its allies on the armed services committees in Congress are lobbying to defeat a proposal to remove major crimes, including sexual assaults, from the chain of command and turn them over to independent military prosecutors.

“The Pentagon taking action is a good thing, and these are positive steps forward, but it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who’s leading the push for independent prosecutions, said yesterday in an e-mailed statement.

The Defense Department has resisted the measure, saying commanding officers must be able to discipline their own troops. The military has won support in that position from lawmakers including Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the Senate Armed Services committee, and Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who serves on the panel.

One policy in a draft Pentagon memo circulating on Capitol Hill would require sexual-assault allegations and actions taken to be reported to the first general or admiral in the chain of command, a step designed to elevate the level of scrutiny such cases receive.

Moving the Accused

Another provision would permit the administrative transfer of a service member accused of committing a sexual assault so as to better protect a victim. Currently, the person who says he or she has been the victim sometimes is transferred from a unit.

The Pentagon proposals are similar to measures already included in the House-passed version of the annual defense authorization bill.

“It’s a way for the Pentagon to look like they’re taking the initiative on these issues when these have been in the sausage-making process for months and months,” said Greg Jacob, policy director of the Service Women’s Action Network, a victims’ advocacy group.

“They’re just simply doing what they would have been told to do anyway,” Jacob, a former Marine, said in an interview. “It’s really kind of silly, in a way.”

‘Urgency’ Remains

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “has made it very clear that he has not ruled out any options for improving the military’s response to sexual assault,” Pentagon spokesman George Little said yesterday in an e-mail.

“Our prevention and response programs are not static,” Little said. “We continually evaluate our programs and seek ways to improve them.”

While McCaskill considers the Pentagon’s move “another positive development,” it “doesn’t detract from the urgency we feel in enacting the historic reforms approved by the Senate Armed Services committee,” said John LaBombard, her spokesman.

The Senate committee’s version of the defense authorization bill would require a high-level review whenever a commanding officer decides against pursuing prosecution of a sex-assault allegation. It also would make retaliation against a victim who reports an assault a criminal offense under military law.

Closing Loopholes

Navy Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a speech last week that the policies the Pentagon will soon offer are evidence of the Pentagon’s determination to address a problem that President Barack Obama has called “shameful and disgraceful” and Hagel has called a “scourge” and a “blight” on the military.

A Pentagon survey of active-duty troops estimated there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports.

“We’re closing any loopholes that the very few commanders who don’t get it could find in avoiding holding people accountable,” Winnefeld said in a panel discussion at the Navy Memorial in Washington.

Jacob and other victims’ advocates say the draft policies, which were reported Aug. 7 by the New York Times, amount to half-measures that don’t address the crux of the problem: too many victims are afraid to report assaults within their chain of command.

Taryn Meeks, executive director of Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group backing Gillibrand’s bill, said the Pentagon’s draft proposals are “good incremental changes but will not fix the broken military justice system.”

The proposal to require reporting of assaults to a general or admiral “still preserves decision-making within the chain of command,” Meeks said in a statement. “Nothing short of an independent, professional and impartial military justice system will end this national disgrace.”

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.