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President Obama Deplores Sexual Violence in Military as Lawmakers Offer Legislation

President Obama Deplores Sexual Violence in Military as Lawmakers Offer Legislation

May 17, 2013 — President Obama summoned Pentagon officials to the White House on Thursday to discuss the problem of sexual violence in the military, while lawmakers offered legislative strategies to address the problem, The Hill's "DEFCON Hill" reports (Herb, "DEFCON HILL," The Hill, 5/16).

The meeting came after the Pentagon's release last 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 assaults. Obama reacted to the new figures by calling for a "no tolerance" approach to sexual crimes in the military (Women's Health Policy Report, 5/10).

Obama continued that line of rhetoric in a brief session with reporters after the meeting. Sexual assault is "dangerous to our national security" and "not a sideshow," he said, adding, "This goes to the heart and the core of who we are and how effective we're going to be" ("DEFCON Hill," The Hill, 5/16). He noted that military officials have told him "that they're ashamed by some of what's happened" (Whitlock, Washington Post, 5/16).

Obama asked Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to lead a process that would hold offenders accountable and protect sexual assault survivors. "When victims do come forward, they deserve justice," he said, adding, "Perpetrators have to experience consequences." However, no specific initiatives were announced (Shanker/Steinhauer, New York Times, 5/16).

"There's no silver bullet to solving this problem," Obama cautioned, adding, "This is going to require a sustained effort over a long period of time" (Gaskell, Politico, 5/16).

Legislative Response

Also on Thursday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation (S 967) that would give military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the authority to decide which cases to prosecute. The measure is among a series of legislative proposals introduced in recent weeks to address the problem of sexual assault in the military ("DEFCON Hill," The Hill, 5/16).

Sens. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Patty Murray (D-Wash.) introduced a bill earlier this month that would provide sexual assault survivors with a military lawyer to help guide them through the claim filing process. Meanwhile, legislation by Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) and Rep. Chellie Pingree (D-Maine) would address barriers that prevent sexual assault victims from getting disability benefits (Fox, U.S. News & World Report, 5/17).

In addition, Hagel has offered a number of initiatives to curb sexual assault -- including a proposal to remove military commanders' ability to overturn guilty verdicts -- which will likely be included in this year's Defense authorization bill. Other proposals that could be considered during debate of the bill range from expanding an Air Force program that provides sexual assault counseling to creating new whistleblower protections for victims and strengthening requirements for sexual assault prevention efforts ("DEFCON Hill," The Hill, 5/16).