March 9, 2012 — Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) on Wednesday urged lawmakers to pass her bill (HR 3435) that would remove military rape and sexual assault investigations from the normal chain of command so they could be handled by an impartial office, the Los Angeles Times reports.
Speier's floor speech came the day after eight current and former military servicewomen filed a federal lawsuit claiming they had been raped, assaulted or harassed while serving and that their superiors targeted them for reporting the incidents (Muskal, Los Angeles Times, 3/7). The lawsuit alleges that military officials have a "high tolerance for sexual predators in their ranks" and have not followed through on pledges to address the issue. The suit names Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, current and former Defense and Navy secretaries, and Marine Corps commandants as defendants (Simpson, Reuters, 3/6).
Speier said, "I'm here to decry a code of dishonor that protects rapists and punishes victims. I'm here to call out an entrenched chain of command that squashes reports of sexual assault because they bring unwanted attention to the unit" (Los Angeles Times, 3/7).
In January, Panetta announced measures aimed at reducing sexual assaults in the military. He said that 3,191 attacks were reported in 2011 but that the actual number could be around 19,000, since most incidents are not reported (Reuters, 3/6).
New York Times Editorial Calls Attention to Military Sexual Assault Problem
"The rate of sexual assaults on American women serving in the military remains intolerably high" and "has outlasted decades of Pentagon studies and task forces and repeated vows of 'zero tolerance,'" a New York Times editorial states.
Although the initiatives recently announced by Panetta include "welcome reforms" -- such as increased funding to train investigators and a system to monitor cases -- "[t]here is a lot of tough work ahead," the editorial states. The Department of Defense has a "dismal" record of prosecuting sexual assault cases, the editorial continues, noting that in 2010, fewer than 21% of reported cases went to trial and only about half of those cases resulted in convictions.
Servicewomen "can't just quit their jobs or leave a combat zone," and "[t]hey must rely on commanding officers who act as investigators, judges and juries, in an extremely tight-knit workplace," the editorial states. "The Pentagon insists that it can reform itself, and we are aware of the perils of civilian intrusion into the military justice system," the editorial continues, concluding, "But for 'zero tolerance' to become a reality, Congress may have to push reform forward" (New York Times, 3/8).