Hagel Announces New Measures to Counter Sexual Assault; Gillibrand Not Satisfied

Still trying to fend off attempts from some in Congress to take the handling of sexual assault cases out of the hands of commanders, the Pentagon today announced additional measures to combat sexual assault in the ranks.

"This effort requires our absolute and sustained commitment to providing a safe environment in which every service member and DoD civilian is free from the threat of sexual harassment and assault," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement. "Our success depends on a dynamic and responsive approach. We, therefore, must continually assess and strive to improve our prevention and response programs."

The new measures announced are:

• 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 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, and;

• Developing and proposing changes to the Manual for Courts-Martial that would allow victims to give input during the sentencing phase of courts-martial.

An independent review panel has been established to assess systems used to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate crimes involving sexual assault and related offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Hagel said.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), the lead proponent of taking sexual assault cases out of the chain of command, said these are "positive steps" but not good enough.

"It is not the leap forward required to solve the problem," Gillibrand said. "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. 302 prosecutions out of an estimated 26,000 cases just isn't good enough under any metric. 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.”

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) applauded Hagel's announcement.

"Expanding support for victims, promoting chain of command oversight, systematic review of sexual assault investigations and increased use of lawyer investigators are vital steps necessary for the kind of cultural change that will ultimately stamp out this crisis within the ranks," McKeon said. "While many of these reforms reflect legislation the House has already overwhelmingly passed, I support Secretary Hagel for implementing policy changes he is already empowered to make. The House approved a range of sexual assault reforms more than a month ago and I hope that Senator Reid will move expeditiously to take them up when the Senate returns in September."

The White House called the reforms "substantial, but only a step along a path toward eliminating this crime from our military ranks."

But Sen. Richard Blumethal (D-Conn.) said Hagel's directives just prove "once again why removing prosecutorial decisions from the chain of command makes sense."

“The likelihood of unfair command influence is one of many reasons to remove prosecutorial decisions from the chain of command. Command influence is inherent and indeed essential in the present system – it’s called leadership, through condemning sexual assault," he said. "By assigning prosecutorial decisions to an independent, specially trained and experienced prosecutor, the system can be made fairer to both victim and accused. Such a system is essential to better reporting by victims, because it avoids re-victimizing them."