USS Enterprise video: An opportunity to reform the Pentagon?

Navy Capt. Owen Honors was removed from command of the USS Enterprise for participating in videos that included sexual innuendo and gay slurs. But some members of Congress see the scandal as a chance to change how the Pentagon responds to sexual crimes.

Steve Helber/AP
The aircraft carrier USS Enterprise sits pier side at the Naval Station Norfolk in Norfolk, Va., Tuesday. The Navy permanently removed Capt. Owen Honors from command of the USS Enterprise Tuesday.

The Pentagon is likely to face stepped-up scrutiny from representatives pushing to leverage the Navy's lewd video scandal into change.

Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts and several colleagues want closer examination of whether sexual assault offenders are adequately punished, as well as better training for a military leadership that she says is often unequipped to deal with matters of sexual harassment and assault.

The US Navy is unlikely to face hearings on Capitol Hill as a direct result of fallout from the USS Enterprise. But Congresswoman Tsongas says that she and other members of the House military personnel subcommittee will continue to examine who responds to such incidents and how successful current Pentagon programs are in curtailing them.

On the Enterprise, Capt. Owen Honors participated in lewd videos that were broadcast over the ship’s closed-circuit television system from 2006 to 2007. The productions were replete with sexual innuendo and gay slurs. Honors was relieved of his command this week.

Pervasive sexual harassment can create a climate that increases the likelihood of assault, and the Enterprise incident illustrates the need for commanders to lead prevention efforts, says Tsongas. “Over and over again we hear the critical role of the commander in dealing with these issues, and how often they are poorly prepared,” she says.

Tsongas adds that good leadership can be as important – or more so – than education programs, she adds. “When you have a commander who engages in that kind of behavior, it doesn’t matter what training put in place."

For this reason, Tsongas and some of her colleagues on the House military personnel subcommittee pushed to make a military general, rather than a civilian, the head of the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office (SAPRO), the Pentagon division tasked with sexual-assault prevention. The amendment did not make it into the final defense authorization bill, but it is a possibility that the subcommittee will continue to investigate, Tsongas says.

For its part, the Defense Department says that SAPRO is not necessarily responsible for responding to sexual-harassment charges.

“It is important to note that much of what has been discussed related to this [USS Enterprise] coverage falls into what the Department of Defense has labeled harassment and not sexual assault,” says Defense Department spokesman Cynthia Smith. “The Department’s response to sexual harassment and sexual assault are designed differently because of the fundamental difference between the two behaviors.”

Specifically, Defense Department policy “encourages individuals to address sexual harassment and other inappropriate behaviors at the lowest level possible,” says Ms. Smith. “In comparison, sexual assault is a crime and requires and immediate and concerted response by authorities.”

Smith points to the Pentagon's efforts to step up its response to sexual crimes. The Army has already trained some 4,200 victim advocates and deployable sexual-assault response coordinators (DSARCs), and the Navy has trained some 12,000 health-care workers and forensic examiners, she says. What’s more, she adds, the Marine Corps is busy “improving the quality of sexual assault litigation training for its personnel and provided specialized instruction to 137 staff judge advocates.”

This legal training is imperative, Tsongas says. The Pentagon has agreed to deliver a study on the feasibility of providing legal counsel to sexual assault victims by 2012. “We will hold them to that,” she adds.

Congress will also be monitoring the status of a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union for the Pentagon to release information on the outcome of sexual assault charges. “There are a lot of questions around the whole prosecution piece,” Tsongas says. “In many instances victims have no idea what has happened once a charge is made. Their request for information can only be helpful.”

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