Defense department report on military sexual assault leaves critics unsatisfied

Push for change despite Pentagon's claim of progress

WASHINGTON, D.C. - A report on sexual assaults released by the Pentagon on Thursday fell far short of satisfying members of Congress who are seeking to overhaul the military’s handling of the cases.

The study, released by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, found that reports of rapes and sexual assaults in the military increased by 8 percent since 2013 to 5,983 cases. In 2012 the number was more than 50 percent fewer, at 3,604.  

Conversely, the report estimated that the total number of sexual assaults decreased significantly in the past two years. The Pentagon estimated that 19,000 men and women were sexually assaulted in 2014, according to a confidential survey. In 2012, the estimate was much larger at 26,000.

Pentagon officials attributed the jump in reported assaults to victims’ amplified willingness to file complaints, up 11 percent since 2012. Secretary Hagel considered the change an improvement, largely attributing it to a series of DoD reforms implemented earlier this year. 

“We believe that our efforts to prevent sexual assault are beginning to have an impact. The prevalence of sexual assault in the military has decreased by 25 percent in the last two years,” Hagel said at a Pentagon briefing. “We’re not there yet, but we will get there. Until then we will continue working relentlessly to prevent sexual assault and we will give survivors the help they need.”

But for a bipartisan group in Congress, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has led a charge to change the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases, the report shows there remains an overwhelming issue within the military complex.

“For a year now we have heard how the reforms in the previous Defense bill were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime. It should be a screaming red flag to everyone when 62 percent of those who say they reported a crime were retaliated against – nearly two-thirds – the exact same number as last year,” she said in a statement Wednesday night. “It is no wonder that still less than 3 out of 10 victims feel they can report their assaults.”

Earlier this year, Gillibrand attempted to pass legislation, the Military Justice Improvement Act, which would change the way that the military tries sexual assault cases by taking the proceedings out of the chain of command. It failed to get enough votes to beat a threatened filibuster.

Some objected to the senator’s attempts to re-arrange the military justice system, while others abstained from voting for the bill to give the new DoD initiatives enough time to play out.

It is those measures that Gillibrand now says have proved insufficient.

“Enough is enough, last December the President said he would give the military and previous reforms a year to work and it is clear they have failed in their mission,” she said. “[A]n estimate of 20,000 cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact a year in our military, or 55 cases a day, is appalling, and remains at 2010 levels. There is no other mission in the world for our military where this much failure would be allowed.”

Following a recent rash of media exposes on rampant sexual assault at a prominent university and failures within the military to address the problem, Gillibrand reinvigorated her efforts to pass the bill earlier this week with the support of a bipartisan group senators, including some strange bedfellows.

Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, Rand Paul, R-Ky., and other Republican members of Congress supported Gillibrand in calling for passage of the bill before the new year. 

The group is hoping to pass the measure as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act, which is due for action in a week. However, that move is being blocked by Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who believes allowing any amendments would open the door for other members to add on legislation and delay the defense budget act.

Another route to passage would be getting the legislation re-introduced as a separate bill, but that option would not have a chance of passing until next year.

[Related: Convicted military sex offenders slip away in public and claim more victims]

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