Thursday, May 16, 2013

DOD Secretary Hagel Opposes Removing Military Justice Authority From Military Chain Of Command.

By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House and U.S. lawmakers went on the offensive against sexual assault in the armed forces on Thursday after a rash of scandals that prompted the nation's top military officer to warn of a crisis in the ranks.
"We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem," Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as he returned from NATO meetings in Brussels. "That's a crisis."
President Barack Obama called a meeting for later Thursday with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other military leaders to discuss sexual assaults after a series of scandals discrediting the military's efforts to stamp it out.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers announced legislation that would overhaul the military justice system by taking responsibility for prosecution of most felony-level cases, including sexual assault, away from the chain of command.
The "Military Justice Improvement Act" would mean that trained military prosecutors, not commanding officers, would decide whether sexual assault cases should go to trial, according to a group of at least 16 U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives behind the legislation.
It also would change the military justice system so that commanders cannot set aside the conviction of anyone who has been found guilty of sexual assault or downgrade a conviction to a lesser offense.
"This epidemic of sexual abuse cannot stand," said Republican Senator Susan Collins. Her Democratic colleague in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand, said the goal was to change the culture in the military.
The Pentagon has been under increasing pressure to do something about sexual assault. Its annual report on such attacks in the military released last week found that unwanted sexual contact complaints involving military personnel jumped 37 percent, to 26,000 in 2012 from 19,000 the previous year.
The report came a day after the officer in charge of the Air Force sexual assault prevention office was charged with groping a woman while drunk in a parking lot not far from the Pentagon.
And on Tuesday, the Army revealed a sergeant in the sexual assault prevention office at Fort Hood in Texas was also being accused of sex crimes, including allegations linking him to prostitution.
"It is clear that something is not working," said U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema, an Arizona Democrat who once worked as a rape crisis counselor.
Hagel has ordered the retraining and recertification of U.S. military personnel whose job it is to work to prevent sexual assault and assist the victims. The Pentagon has made clear Hagel is open to further actions.
"There are a lot of good ideas out there. There are some I don't think are good ideas, and there are some I really don't understand," Dempsey said. "I'm hoping to provide my best advice back to those making the proposals. But I assure you that we are open-minded to see if there are opportunities to do better out there."
Hagel and other military chiefs will meet Obama and Vice President Joe Biden on Thursday afternoon to discuss their efforts to stop sexual assaults in the armed forces, a White House spokeswoman said. Dempsey, as the president's top uniformed military adviser, will attend the meeting.
Democratic Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced a bill on Wednesday to force Hagel to take action to strengthen sexual assault prevention programs, including improving the training and qualifications of those who work in those jobs.
Hagel last week publicly opposed taking responsibility for the prosecution of sex crimes out of the hands of the military chain of command, but Pentagon officials since then have emphasized his willingness to be flexible and work with members of Congress.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart and Jeff Mason; Editing by David Brunnstrom and Doina Chiacu)

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