- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Pentagon announced Thursday new measures to crack down on sexual assaults in the ranks ahead of legislation that could alter how the military deals with sexual misconduct.

Among the new measures:

⦁ Establishing by Jan. 1 a program to provide legal representation for victims.

⦁ Allowing victims to provide input during the sentencing phase of courts-martial.

⦁ Permitting commanders to reassign or transfer members accused of sexual assault.

⦁ Requiring timely follow-up reports on sexual assaults to be given to the first general or flag officer in the chain of command.

“Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who honorably serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force. It must be stamped out,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a memo Wednesday. “All of these measures will provide victims additional rights, protections, and legal support, and help ensure that sexual assault-related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally.”

Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, said the military’s effort is too little, too late.

“The Pentagon action is a good thing, and these are positive steps forward, but it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem,” the New York Democrat said.

Ms. Gillibrand has introduced legislation that would remove commanders’ authority to oversee sexual assault cases within their chains of command, and allow independent military lawyers to prosecute such cases.

The military chiefs oppose the legislation, saying it would weaken commanders’ ability to discipline their troops.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, who also opposes Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal, applauded the Pentagon’s Thursday announcement.

“Today’s announcement has little bearing on the fact that Congress will soon mandate a host of historic reforms — but it’s evidence that the Defense Department is now treating this problem with the seriousness that we expect, and that survivors deserve,” the Missouri Democrat said.

The Senate Committee on Armed Services approved in June a proposal introduced by Ms. McCaskill that would keep sexual assault prosecutions within the chain of command, but it would require civilian review of cases that commanders choose not to prosecute.

The House and Senate military committees have approved several reforms, some of which will be included in the 2014 Defense Authorization Act, including:

⦁ Stripping commanders of the authority to dismiss sexual assault convictions.

⦁ Making it a crime to retaliate against victims who report sex abuse.

⦁ Authorizing automatic dishonorable discharges for sexual assault convictions.

⦁ Eliminating the consideration of “military character” when deciding whether to convene a court-martial for sexual assault.

The Pentagon estimated last year that there were 26,000 instances of sexual assault. But of the nearly 2,660 sexual assault cases that were investigated and closed in 2012, only about 600 resulted in courts-martial.

• Kristina Wong can be reached at kwong@washingtontimes.com.

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