New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Aug 8, 2013
WASHINGTON >> Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is completing new rules to fight what he has called a “scourge” of sexual assault in the military, taking steps meant to guarantee high-level attention to accusations of wrongdoing and to offer greater protections to victims, according to Pentagon, administration and congressional officials.
The initiatives come amid a growing national awareness of sexual assault in the military. Critics, especially in Congress, have questioned how the armed services handle these cases. Under one legislative proposal, sexual assault cases would be handled by an independent military legal authority, removing commanders from overseeing sexual assault cases within their units.
One new rule under consideration by Hagel would expand the role that victims have throughout the court-martial process, including the sentencing phase. In a handful of cases that have been the focus of sharp congressional rebuke, senior commanders have overturned convictions of their subordinates in sexual assault cases.
Another rule would require that all reports of sexual assault filed by service personnel who choose to seek legal remedies be immediately brought to the attention of the first general or admiral in the chain of command of that organization. This, officials said, would guarantee accelerated senior-level supervision and rapid corrective action.
President Barack Obama addressed the issue of sexual assault on Wednesday in a speech to Marines at Camp Pendleton in California, saying it “undermines what this military stands for.”
In May, Obama directed Hagel and Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to develop a process that would improve enforcement of the law, hold violators accountable and protect victims.
Senior Pentagon officials agree that the Uniform Code of Military Justice should be reviewed with an eye to limiting the ability of commanders to overturn the convictions of a court-martial, and Hagel may seek the authority from Congress to accomplish that.
In the near term, officials said, Hagel is likely to seek amendments to the code, the official manual used to guide the operations of military courts. That step would require an executive order from Obama, and Hagel has discussed the issue with the president.
“Solving the problem of sexual assault in the military is one of Secretary Hagel’s top priorities,” said George Little, the Pentagon press secretary. “He’s working closely with senior military leaders, the White House and Congress to develop specific actions that will help address this pressing issue. He understands the urgency of the problem and that concrete actions, not just words, are required.”
The specifics of Hagel’s proposals were described over recent days by more than a dozen Pentagon, administration and congressional officials on the condition that they not be named ahead of the release of the final version of the rules.
Under another proposed rule, commanders would be given the authority to transfer those accused of sexual assault to another base during the pretrial phase of an investigation, to remove any chance of continued contact with the accuser. Today, accusers may request a transfer, but that has been viewed as placing too much of the burden on them.
New rules would also set parameters for interactions between recruiters and recruits. Those proposals come after reports that some recruiters preyed on teenagers they had met in the recruiting process, with the unwanted advances coming in the form of vulgar text messages, coarse emails and physical assault.
Among the new measures, officials said, is one requiring all of the armed services to create victims’ advocacy programs.
Accusers would be provided legal representation throughout the process. That might require an expansion or reorganization of the legal departments in the armed services, one official involved in the effort said.
Some of the victims’ advocacy programs are already in place, but military leaders want to apply such programs consistently throughout the armed services.
The new rules are all but final, officials said. Hagel, in his most recent weekly meeting to discuss the Pentagon’s responses to sexual assault, asked for more information before announcing the orders, officials said.
The deputy defense secretary, Ashton B. Carter, said Tuesday in an interview on the PBS program “NewsHour” that the armed services would move ahead to address the problem of sexual assault and not wait for congressional action.
“Our attitude and culture in the Department of Defense is to look a problem in the face, understand it and be forthright about taking it on,” Carter said.