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White House, Congressional Lawmakers Meet To Discuss Sexual Assaults in Military

White House, Congressional Lawmakers Meet To Discuss Sexual Assaults in Military

May 10, 2013 — White House officials and congressional lawmakers on Thursday met to discuss a legislative strategy to curb the growing number of sexual assaults in the military, the New York Times reports (Steinhauer, New York Times, 5/9).

The meeting follows the Pentagon's release this week of a report showing that military sexual assaults have increased by 35% to 26,000, up from 19,300 in 2010. It also noted that only a fraction of victims report their assault.

The report led the Pentagon to call for a series of initiatives to foster a climate in the military that deters sexual assault and properly cares for victims. President Obama also reacted to the new figures by calling for a "no tolerance" approach to sexual crimes in the military (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/8).

Details of Thursday's Meeting

Sixteen bipartisan House and Senate lawmakers met with Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett; Tina Tchen, chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama; and Lynn Rosenthal, White House adviser on violence against women (Summers, Politico, 5/9). The group discussed various proposals that aim to hold offenders accountable, improve the reporting process and support victims, an official said after the meeting (Rampton, Reuters, 5/9).

So far, the Obama administration has not embraced a specific bill; rather, the meeting "was more one of information-gathering rather than any sort of endorsement of specific legislation," a Democratic aide said. Still, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) said the conference is a sign the administration is taking the issue "very seriously." The White House has "put their top people on this, and it's very impressive," she added (Politico, 5/9).

Legislation Under Consideration

There are several pending bills that would address sexual assault in the military, Reuters notes. Murray and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) introduced a bill this week that would provide survivors with a military lawyer and would refer such cases to the court-martial level. Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio) plans to introduce companion legislation in the House (Reuters, 5/9).

In addition, Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio) and Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.) -- who co-chair the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus -- introduced a bill that would curb the authority of military commanders to overturn jury convictions in sexual assault cases. The bill also would require service members found guilty of committing or attempting sexual assault to be dismissed from the service or dishonorably discharged.

Meanwhile, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is preparing to introduce legislation that would give military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the authority to decide which cases to try. Top military officials are expected to resist the measure. When asked about a similar proposal this week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said that removing authority from military commanders would "weaken the system" (Politico, 5/9).

Washington Post Editorial Urges Fundamental Change

"It is time for fundamental change in how the military investigates and prosecutes these pernicious crimes," a Washington Post editorial states, noting that despite repeated promises from the military to take action against sexual assault, "abuse and a culture of impunity persist."

The editorial notes that senior military officials are reluctant to take military justice out of the chain of command for "fear that it will erode order and discipline." However, U.S. allies -- including Australia, Britain, Canada and Israel -- all operate systems in which prosecuting authorities make decisions about crimes. "A new approach is needed," the editorial argues, adding that now is the "opportunity to examine those models" (Washington Post, 5/9).