Report: Pentagon misled Congress on sexual assault in military

A watchdog group has discovered that the Pentagon misled lawmakers about its handling of sexual assault cases in an effort to block reform.

Molly Riley/AP/File
Adm. James A. 'Sandy' Winnefeld, Jr., speaks in Washington in June 2015. The Pentagon misled Congress with inaccurate information about sexual assault cases that portrayed civilian law enforcement officials as less willing than military commanders to investigate and punish sex offenders, an Associated Press investigation found.

A furor is brewing over suggestions that the Pentagon may have misled Congress in its drive to stymie a bill that would substantially alter the way the military handles sexual misconduct allegations.

At the heart of the debate is Senate legislation introduced in 2013 by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York, which seeks to strip senior officers of their responsibilities to determine whether sexual assault cases should be investigated, transferring that power instead to veteran military trial lawyers.

In their opposition to the proposals, Pentagon representatives insisted that statistics showed military officers to be more willing to prosecute than civilian law enforcement, undermining the rationale behind the bill. But investigations by the Associated Press and Protect our Defenders, an advocacy group that seeks to curb rape and sexual assault in the military, paint a different picture.

“In testimony and a letter to Congress, Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice-Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, claimed that there were a number of cases where civilian prosecutors “refused” to prosecute and military commanders subsequently “insisted” those cases be sent to court-martial,” reads a statement by Protect our Defenders.

“Our analysis reveals that the Pentagon exaggerated and distorted the facts in order to undermine fundamental reform of the military justice system.”

The relevant records were obtained through a Freedom of Information request by Protect our Defenders, then passed on to AP, which investigated further.

During the course of those investigations, the position of Protect our Defenders – that steps taken by civilian authorities had been described incorrectly or omitted – was lent further credence.

In particular, there is nothing to support the military’s fundamental argument to the Senate as to why the status quo should remain: that top brass in the military would insist on pursuing cases to trial in the wake of civilian authorities refusing to do so.

"It's offensive that they would say they would prosecute cases that we would not," Jaime Esparza, the district attorney for El Paso County, Texas, where the Army's 1.1 million-acre Fort Bliss is located, told AP.

Indeed, the picture painted of civilian law enforcement is often unflattering, and it belies the close working relationships that the AP investigation found to exist between said authorities and uniformed legal staffs at local military establishments.

Repercussions from these investigations could bolster support for the bill, which has floundered largely due to military opposition. Another vote could be tabled as early as June.

"Someone at the Pentagon should be held accountable," said retired Col. Don Christensen, Protect our Defenders' president and the former chief Air Force prosecutor. "Whether you agree or disagree with the policy, every senator – especially those who repeated the claim or based their vote on the claim – should be outraged."

This report uses material from the Associated Press

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