- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Pentagon-hired pollster asked a record half-million active-duty troops this year to fill out an Internet survey on sexual assault, prompting critics to say the upcoming results will be skewed to show a higher number of victims than actually exist.

In the past, the Pentagon had conducted its own survey, which found alarmingly high numbers as well as a much higher percentage of victims compared with the civilian world.

This year, the Defense Department Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO) turned the polling over to the Rand Corp. It has made big changes in the way the Pentagon previously tried to capture the percentage of women who are victims of sexual assault, also defined as unwanted sexual contact.

In 2012, the last time the Pentagon itself did the questioning, it created a pool of only 108,000 service members to receive emails that provided coded access to the online survey.

Rand expanded the pool, first by asking every active-duty servicewoman — about 200,000 — to take the anonymous survey. And it is asking more than 300,000 men as well, plus troops in the reserve forces.

Much is a stake for the 1.4 million active force. The survey’s biennial release triggers blanket news media coverage. And the numbers set off an uproar from some lawmakers who deride the military culture and upbraid the top brass.

The most recent survey results for 2012 were released in May 2013. Of the 108,000 troops invited to take the survey, 24,000 responded. From that sample, the Pentagon extrapolated that more than 6 percent of military women, or 12,000, said they were sexual assault victims in the previous year. A much smaller number actually filed official complaints.

Some social conservatives question this high rate. They say a voluntary Internet survey is likely to attract women victims and those interested in the issue, while the many nonvictims do not fill it out. Thus, critics argue, the sample is skewed with an overrepresentation of victims, with the problem getting even worse with a larger pool of respondents.

Amid the criticism, the Pentagon, for the next scheduled survey release in 2015, turned to Rand, a research organization focused on national security. It has embarked on an ambitious project to build a much larger sample than 24,000.

“Rand’s survey will build perceptions of widespread victimhood, because anonymous complaints will far exceed numbers of actual cases ending in convictions,” said Elaine Donnelly, who directs the Center for Military Readiness. “This will fuel demands for more grants for professional victim advocates and for a tax-funded committee to meddle in legal proceedings from a new power base in the Pentagon.”

Jeffrey Hiday, a Rand spokesman, said the survey’s title, “Rand Military Workplace Study,” is worded to reflect it is not just a sexual assault survey.

“Great care was taken to obtain a representative sample, including avoiding references to sexual assault in our invitations and Web material,” Mr. Hiday said.

Mr. Hiday said all responses have been received, but he declined to say how many of the more than 500,000 troops cooperated.

Rand states on its website: “Without broad participation, the results of the survey may be invalid. This could lead to bad or wasteful policies that hurt the effectiveness and readiness of your Service. Your experiences matter and we hope you will make them count.”

The Pentagon is mindful of the survey’s critics. Rand, in a sense, will be double-checking the accuracy of previous polls.

“The Defense Department contracted with Rand to have an independent, outside organization conduct the biennial prevalence survey,” said Army Maj. James Brindle, a Pentagon spokesman. “Rand’s survey methodology will allow the department to accurately compare data among all previous surveys so that we can seamlessly assess progress the department is making in preventing and responding to the crime of sexual assault.”

Critics do not point only to a supposed skewed sample. They say the Pentagon’s results do not mesh with society as a whole.

The Bureau of Justice Statistics reported a sex assault rate of just four-tenths of 1 percent for women age 18-34, a range that roughly matches the military population. The Bureau’s polling in 2010 relied not on Internet responses but on phone calls and personal interviews conducted by the Census Bureau.

Based on those results, the military has a rate of sexual assault against women that is 12 times higher compared with civilians. Overall, the Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that sexual assault rates have been falling in the U.S. over the past 20 years.

Critics also cite the Pentagon survey’s wide swings. In 2006, its poll found 34,000 total sexual assault victims; in 2010, the number dropped significantly to 19,000; and then in 2012, it went back up, to 26,000 — 12,000 of whom were women.

The Pentagon has defended the disparities by saying the percentage of male victims held constant. If the data were skewed, that percentage would have fluctuated too, it says.

Robert Maginnis, a retired Army officer and analyst at the Family Research Council, said he expects Rand’s survey report next year to produce bogus numbers, just like the Pentagon‘s.

“Even though the results are unreliable because of the sampling technique, Rand will dip into the statistics to make broad allegations about militarywide sexual assault,” he said.

“Then the radical feminists in Congress and their K Street cheerleaders will demand a wild assortment of readiness-bashing fixes that will rob commanders [of] discretion and waste funds, time and morale badly needed on important missions.”

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