Obama, Hagel Offer Lip Service on Military Sexual Assault

Judging by their words, you’d think they’d be willing to stop at nothing to end the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. But you would be wrong.

"We have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they’ve got no place in the greatest military on earth," President Barack Obama told the U.S. Naval Academy class of 2013. U.S. Navy photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Alexia Riveracorrea

Two days before President Barack Obama delivered a commencement address to the class of 2013 at the U.S. Naval Academy, and three days before Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed graduates of West Point, news broke of yet another in a series of sex crimes against women in the military. A sergeant on the staff of the U.S. Army’s elite academy was accused of surreptitiously videotaping female cadets as they used showers and bathrooms.

By the words both men uttered, you’d think they’d be willing to stop at nothing to end the epidemic of sexual assault against members of the armed forces by their own comrades. But you would be wrong. Neither Obama nor Hagel has signed on to the one sure means of stemming the crisis: Take the reporting and adjudication of these crimes out of the chain of command.

“Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trusts. This scourge must be stamped out. We are all accountable and responsible for ensuring that this happens,” Hagel said to the graduating class at West Point on Saturday. “We cannot fail the Army or America. We cannot fail each other, and we cannot fail the men and women that we lead.”

Since Hagel took the helm at the Pentagon earlier this year, the scandal of widespread sexual assault committed by members of the military has dominated his term. A lieutenant in charge of the Air Force sexual assault prevention unit was charged with sexual battery of a civilian in a Virginia parking lot, an Army sergeant in charge of the the sexual assault reporting unit at Fort Hood was investigated for abusive sexual behavior, and news broke of a string of sexual assaults by military recruiters against potential recruits.

And these are just the news reports that broke this month, bookending the release of a Pentagon report that estimated a 37 percent surge over the previous year’s estimates of sexual assaults against members of the military by their own comrades.

But when asked, after the release of the damning 2013 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, if he would support taking the prosecution of sexual assault complaints out of commanders’ hands, Hagel bristled. “That would just weaken the system,” he said on May 7, according to Wired’s Spencer Ackerman. Since then, Hagel seems to have softened his position, telling Pentagon reporters that nothing is “off the table,” but is withholding judgment, according to Ackerman, until a panel appointed by Congress makes its recommendations.

Likewise, President Obama made a big show in his address to the Naval Academy of condemning the culture of assault that apparently pervades the armed forces, but he’s yet to weigh in on the chain-of-command question.

After noting the lack of trust Americans have for most institutions, Obama said:

Our military remains the most trusted institution in America…And yet, we must acknowledge that even here, even in our military, we’ve seen how the misconduct of some can have effects that ripple far and wide. In our digital age, a single image from the battlefield of troops falling short of their standards can go viral and endanger our forces and undermine our efforts to achieve security and peace. Likewise, those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong. That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they’ve got no place in the greatest military on Earth.

But if the commander-in-chief wanted to prove his commitment to ending the military’s rape crisis, he could express his support for a bill proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would make long-overdue changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including a system that would take the prosecution of sexual crimes away from the commander of the accused. While full of bluster on the crisis, the president has yet to endorse Gillibrand’s solution, or suggest one of his own.

Even when the accused is not a victim’s superior officer, experience has shown that the accused’s superior officer—who has jurisdiction in such matters—is often inclined to downplay the accusations made against his or her charge. And then there’s the authority currently held by commanders to overturn guilty verdicts rendered against perpetrators, as Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin did earlier this year, when one of his pilots was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault. As Roll Call noted on March 5:

Air Force News reported that the former Aviano Air Base, Italy, inspector general convicted in November of sexual assault will return to active duty and could pin on his next rank of colonel after an unusual Feb. 26 decision to throw out the case by the commander of the 3rd Air Force.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has proposed legislation that would end commanders’ prerogative to overturn guilty verdicts, but it doesn’t deal with the larger problem of putting an end to military rape culture. Having a special prosecutor for sex crimes (and other crimes that are not specific to military operations)—one who works beyond the control of commanders—would.

U.S. allies seem to have already figured this out: The armed forces of the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada, and Australia, to name a few, have military justice systems that incorporate the kind of changes Gillibrand seeks.

Those who oppose taking the prosecution of sex crimes from the hands of commanders often claim that the chain of command must maintain control of all matters of military justice for the sake of “good order and discipline”—as if it were a natural thing for members of an orderly and disciplined force to prey on their comrades with impunity. What a cruel joke that must seem to the thousands—an estimated 26,000 in 2012 alone, according to the Pentagon—who have been assaulted by their fellows in the ranks.

Others suggest that resistance to changing the code speaks to a culture in which tradition is sanctified. But a tradition of unpunished assault in a rape-laced culture is nothing to hold sacred.

The military’s decades-long sexual assault epidemic, taking place in an atmosphere in which victims are afraid to report the crimes committed against them, suggests that the commanders have failed at the job of doing justice for those set upon by the sexual predators in their charge. It’s time they were relieved of command at that particular post.