by Robert Callobridge
For decades, the Pentagon has struggled to address the issue of sexual assault within its ranks. The issue, though often overlooked, has been a perennial topic of concern for certain lawmakers and committees tasked with oversight of the massive federal agency. In 2004, Congress mandated the creation of the a task force to investigate ways to more effectively address the issue in military academies.
The Department of Defense (DoD) has addressed issues regarding discrimination, LGBT soldiers, women in combat, and other deeply-divided topics. However, it has struggled to satisfactorily address the concerns of victim advocates and oversight hawks. A 2005 Inspector General report from the DoD found that the majority of female victims of sexual assault did not report the incidents because of fear of disclosure and the resulting perceived ramification—including damage to their social life and careers.
While the problem is considerable across the country in all fields, it is especially pervasive in the military due to strictly-enforced institutional procedures governing how sexual assaults are reported and prosecuted. The “chain of command”—a system whereby a victim reports the incident to his or her commanding officer, who then carries unilateral authority in determining whether to prosecute, and then reserves authorities to in some cases overturn a conviction—is under stricter scrutiny than ever.
For example, reports like a 2011 exposé from Newsweek found that a woman soldier is more likely to be sexually assaulted than killed in combat.
Enforcement problems spurred the Department to conclude that of the estimated 19,000 sexual assaults in the military each year, only 1,108 are reported and filed for investigation. Of these, only half are actually processed. Last year, only 96 cases went to court martial.
These statistics belie an unpleasant truth for the Pentagon, which is renown for its cozy relationships with Congress and special interest groups: the Department is having a difficult time reconciling previous attempts from Congress at requiring it to address the problem on its own. In 2008, Congress required the Pentagon to create a database with data regarding previous sexual assault cases and reports within two years, hoping to curb the statistics illustrating that up to 90% of the sexual assault in the military are committed by repeat-offenders.
Five years and $14 million later, the Pentagon still cannot claim the database is operational.
In response, lawmakers have sought to more directly intervene. Senator Kirsten Gilibrand (D-NY) has introduced a bill that would completely remove commanding officers from the procedures surrounding prosecution of sexual assaults in the military. In a far cry from the days of yore, it has gathered significant bipartisan momentum in the press, public, and the annals of the world’s most-deliberative body.
Senator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has introduced another bill, with separate backers from both parties, that would more forcefully mandate the Pentagon to comply with previous requirements and would address in smaller fashion perceived problems with the sexual assault reporting procedures. Already this year, reforms have been tied to funding and authorization bills, including one sponsored by Republican Mike Turner of Dayton, requiring an immediate and mandatory dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of a sexual assault crime while in the military.
But as the wheels of Congress begin to turn faster, the Pentagon is still lobbying lawmakers to be patient and deal with the bloated agency as it struggles to modernize systems annually eviscerated by its own Inspector General for being inadequate.
Their refrain is simple: we know we’re slow, but we’re steady and we’re trying.
They want the time to implement reforms based on the traditions of the historic entity, including the findings of a panel set up by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to research exactly that. And while the Pentagon, the invincible lobbying machine, is severely weakened following decades of limited progress, it has succeeded in slowing the process and limiting the impact by pitting factions of Congress against each other.
Whether the debacle will continue indefinitely is not known, but the resolve of each faction will surely be tested by the massive sequester budget cuts scheduled to take place at the beginning of next year and remove more than $20 billion from the Pentagon’s budget.