GWEN IFILL: We return again to the issue of sexual assault in the military, as yet another shoe drops at the Pentagon.
Margaret Warner has more.
MARGARET WARNER: The Army announced late yesterday that a sergeant who handled sexual assault cases at Fort Hood, Texas, is being criminally investigated on sex crime allegations. No charges have been filed.
In response, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel ordered the Pentagon to retrain, re-credential and re-screen all military recruiters and sexual assault prevention officers. The latest revelation comes just 10 days after the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention chief was arrested on charges of sexual battery. And a Pentagon survey last week estimated that 26,000 military members were sexually assaulted last year.
Joining me to discuss all this is Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post.
Craig, welcome back to the program.
CRAIG WHITLOCK, The Washington Post: Thank you.
MARGARET WARNER: So, first of all, the situation at Fort Hood. Tell us more about what is alleged to have happened, what he is alleged to have done.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, as you say, no charges have been filed, but criminal investigators from the Army are looking into allegations that this sergeant committed sexual abuse involving multiple women.
And in one case, they’re looking into allegations that he may be charged with pandering. And that’s military crime-speak for essentially organizing prostitution. So I think this is a case that not only is it bad enough and shocking enough that a sexual prevention officer was involved in this kind of crime, but I think people on Capitol Hill, lawmakers, are really baffled by this, that someone could be placed in the kind of position that he was.
MARGARET WARNER: And, of course, the Air Force colonel last week was also in this field. But explain Secretary Hagel’s response yesterday, even though there has been a sort of steady drip-drip with these cases. Why did he respond now the way he did with this new program?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, I think he — the Pentagon is scrambling to figure out how it should respond. They’re realizing this is a systemic problem, not an isolated case by case, that they have a real difficulty here in prosecuting, identifying sexual assault cases, handling victims, making people feel comfortable with reporting these sort of crimes.
So what he did last night is he announced that the Pentagon is going to retrain, re-screen, re-credential all 9,000 sexual assault prevention officers in the military, as well as over 20,000 military recruiters across the country. And I think the attempt there is to answer — make sure no other people with problematic backgrounds are in those jobs.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, and you reported, did you not, earlier this week that military recruiters, there have been some cases involving them with very young women.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: That’s right, in a number of cases this year.
There was a case in Maryland where an Army recruiter was involved in a murder/suicide with a young woman he was recruiting her for the Army. There was a case in Alaska just this month where someone was found guilty, and a Marine jury gave him no jail time. And the Pentagon doesn’t track these cases in terms of statistics, so they’re scrambling there.
MARGARET WARNER: So, describe the pressure you talked about that Secretary Hagel is under from the Hill and the outrage and where that may be — where that’s leading potentially.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, lawmakers have been expressing concerns about sex crimes in the military for a number of years, but these cases, these reports have really fueled their concerns.
And what I think we’re pretty certainly going see is legislative change. The Pentagon has always resisted any change to military law that would take power away from commanders to investigate or oversee these cases. But there’s a powerful push on the Hill, particularly among female lawmakers, to make some real changes to military law in that regard.
MARGARET WARNER: Like Sen. Gillibrand.
Why — why are military commanders, and all the way up, I gather, into the Pentagon, so resistant to the idea of transferring, giving the authority to prosecute these cases to military lawyers?
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that’s a really good question, but to answer that, you sort of have to understand military culture a bit.
The commanders have the power and authority over everything within their units. And they’re charged with this very important responsibility of taking care of their people, of overseeing good order and discipline. To take that power away from military commanders, in essence, is a way of saying they were unable to handle this problem, that they can’t be trusted with that.
And I think a lot of them, particularly the honorable ones, are uncomfortable with that. Now, there are others who say, yes, this is a problem. We’re not legally trained. We’re not judges, that we should hand this off to legal professionals, and that would save them a lot of headaches. And that’s the battle we’re seeing right now on Capitol Hill.
MARGARET WARNER: And where is Secretary Hagel on this? I noticed that his spokesman wrote a letter to The New York Times last week disputing the way Secretary Hagel’s views were characterized.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Well, that’s right.
But I think his views have changed on this chain of command, whether commanders should have the ultimate responsibility for these cases or not. I was there when Hagel was asked last week at a press conference, “do you support this or not?” And he was pretty direct in saying, no, we don’t want to take this responsibility away from commanders.
In just a matter of days, they backed off that. Now, Sen. Gillibrand told me she talked to Hagel after that and she really put the screws to him, and she said that, well, he’s listening, he’s keeping an open mind. So I think we are seeing some changes in the Pentagon’s receptiveness to reform.
MARGARET WARNER: Well, Craig Whitlock of The Washington Post, thank you.
CRAIG WHITLOCK: Sure thing.