Amid evidence that reports of sexual assault in the military are increasing, the Pentagon plans to launch a new "special victims unit" trained to analyze crime scenes and interview victims, with the aim of bringing more perpetrators to justice.
The military will also run sexual assault cases farther up the chain of command, requiring that they are reviewed by a higher-ranking officer than is currently the norm.
The revelations stem from an unusual visit to Capitol Hill late Monday by Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to meet with lawmakers from the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus. The new measures, he promised them, will "fundamentally change" the way the Pentagon prosecutes cases of sexual assault within the military.
“I certainly can’t remember another time when a secretary of Defense came to brief the caucus,” said one congressional staffer, who asked to remain anonymous because she is not authorized to speak about the closed-door session.
“Chairman Dempsey acknowledged that despite all their efforts, they really haven’t been able to make any appreciable difference with sexual assaults,” says Rep. Niki Tsongas (D) of Massachusetts, co-chairman of the caucus. “They’re becoming very concerned with it.”
The number of reported sexual assaults increased last year, according to a DOD report released Friday, to 3,192 cases that involved a US service member. By the Pentagon’s estimate, at least 85 percent of sexual assaults that occur within the US military may go unreported.
One major problem hampering assault prevention efforts, senior defense officials have concluded, is the military's history of ineffective punishment of perpetrators. “The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders,” Panetta said after the caucus meeting. “If we can do that, then we can begin to deal with this issue.”
In one of the US military's most comprehensive survey on the problem, 1 in 5 women serving in the military said she had experienced sexual assault. In the vast majority of the assaults against women – more than 80 percent – the perpetrators are fellow US service members.
The reasons troops cite for not reporting a sexual assault are striking – and troubling, say senior military officials. Nearly half said they “did not want to cause trouble in their unit.” Others said they did not file a report because they did not believe the perpetrator would be brought to justice.
That is true, in many cases. In the report released last week, the Pentagon acknowledged that 36 percent of convicted sex offenders were permitted to stay in the military in 2011.
The Service Women’s Action Network, a victims' advocacy group, notes that between 2009 and 2011 the Pentagon allowed some 10 percent of reported offenders to resign in lieu of a court martial, “thereby avoiding a trial.”
The new “special victims unit” will help military lawyers better prepare to prosecute sexual assault cases, widely acknowledged to be some of the most complex to prosecute, particularly for inexperienced attorneys.
In many cases, service members who were supposed to be advocates for troops who had been sexually assaulted “weren’t trained to deal with the victims – so they were getting victimized twice,” says Tom Crosson, press secretary for Rep. Michael Turner (R) of Ohio, co-chairman of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus.
This has been a recurring theme in constituent complaints about sexual assault in the military, says Representative Tsongas. “They would go to victims' advocates or SARCs [sexual assault prevention coordinators] and then were very unpleasantly surprised – betrayed.”
The Pentagon's new measures have the potential to be “revolutionary,” says the congressional staffer. “We hope that it will help the process of prosecuting be stronger. We do think it’s revolutionary,” the staffer adds. “These are places where the Pentagon prosecution hasn’t been willing to go in the past.”