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Pentagon Poised To Unveil New Policies for Sexual Assault Cases; President Obama Weighs In

Pentagon Poised To Unveil New Policies for Sexual Assault Cases; President Obama Weighs In

August 8, 2013 — The Department of Defense as early as this week could release six new policies designed to address how the military handles sexual assault cases, according to a memo of the draft plans obtained by Politico (Samuelsohn, Politico, 8/7).

The memo follows President Obama's directive in May that ordered Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey -- chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- to develop a process to improve enforcement of laws, hold perpetrators accountable and better protect victims (Shanker, New York Times, 8/7).

In the memo, Hagel proposes several executive actions that "further efforts" originally proposed in the House and Senate versions of a defense authorization bill. The memo notes that the directives have yet to receive final approval and are still subject to change (Politico, 8/7). However, officials have suggested that the rules are all but final (New York Times, 8/7).

Memo Details

In the memo, the DOD proposed a rule that would require sexual assault victim reports to "be accelerated quickly" to the first flag or general officer in the command chain, if the victim has identified himself or herself. The rule would not apply to "restricted" victim reports, in which the accuser remains anonymous (Politico, 8/7). Officials said this rule would guarantee senior-level supervision of the case and a rapid response.

Another rule would allow victims to weigh in on the case throughout the court-martial process, including the sentencing phase. A third rule would let commanders transfer accused individuals to another base during the pretrial phase in order to protect the accuser from continued contact with the alleged perpetrator (New York Times, 8/7).

Under another proposal, all military branches would have to adopt consistent guidelines about what constitutes an inappropriate relationship between trainers and trainees and between recruiters and recruits. Another policy would mandate that judge advocates also serve as investigating officers in "Article 32 preliminary hearings," the military's version of a grand jury. Lastly, a new rule would expand to the Army, Marine Corps and Navy an Air Force pilot program that provides legal advice to sexual assault victims.

Reaction to Proposals

DOD would not comment on the memo's details (Politico, 8/7). However, Pentagon press secretary George Little in a statement said that Hagel is "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" (New York Times, 8/7). Meanwhile, John LaBombard -- a spokesperson for Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who is involved in legislation to address the issue -- said that the proposal "doesn't detract from the urgency we feel in enacting the historic reforms approved by the Armed Services Committee, but it's another sign that the Defense Department is now treating this problem with the seriousness that we expect, and that survivors deserve" (Politico, 8/7).

President Obama Weighs In on Sexual Assault Issue

On Wednesday, President Obama during a speech to Marines at Camp Pendleton called on the military to better respond to the issue of military sexual assault, Politico reports (Samuelsohn/Palmer, Politico, 8/8).

Obama said sexual assault "undermines what this military stands for and it undermines what the Marine Corps stands for when sexual assault takes place within." He called on the military to "stop these crimes of sexual assault and uphold the honor and the integrity that defines the finest military on earth" (Mason, Reuters, 8/7).

Obama Avoids Direct Involvement

Politico reports that Obama's speech was a relatively "generic" call to action amid what has been his generally passive involvement with the issue.

There are several reasons why the president likely will not "take a clear stand on what he believes a serious overhaul should look like," Politico reports. Some Democrats do not think he will become more directly involved because he would risk alienating the military leaders who have resisted certain changes, according to Politico.

Obama also could risk backlash from some in his own party if he pushes to remove the prosecution of sexual assault cases from the chain of command. Democratic lawmakers are divided on the issue.

As commander in chief, Obama also has to consider potential legal issues from becoming involved.

Several military judges and defense attorneys have cited Obama's comments during a May White House press conference where he said perpetrators must held accountable, "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged." One judge ruled that two defendants could not be punitively discharged because Obama's comments represented "unlawful command influence" by suggesting a specific punishment (Politico, 8/8).