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As Outrage Grows, Military Makes Addressing Sexual Assault Top Priority

May 17, 2013 at 12:00 AM EST
Defense Secretary Hagel said he'll do everything necessary to fix the military's sexual assault crisis, but offered no new solutions during a briefing at the Pentagon. Some members of Congress are advocating a solution that lies partly outside the command ranks. Margaret Warner talks with The Wall Street Journal's Julian Barnes.
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JEFFREY BROWN: The issue of sexual assault in the military was back in the spotlight today at the Pentagon.

Margaret Warner reports.

MARGARET WARNER: Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey offered no new solutions to the military’s sexual assault crisis at today’s much-anticipated Pentagon briefing. Hagel did vow once again to do everything necessary to address the problem.

DEFENSE SECRETARY CHUCK HAGEL, United States: The problem will be solved here in this institution, and we will fix it and we will do everything we need to do to fix it. There’s not a military leader that was in that room that’s not completely committed to that.

MARGARET WARNER: The press conference comes on the heels of a recent Pentagon survey indicating that 26,000 military members were sexually assaulted last year, a significant jump from 2011. Yet only 3,400 of those assaults were actually reported by the victims.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: There is no silver bullet to solving this problem.

MARGARET WARNER: President Obama had some stern words yesterday after summoning Hagel, Dempsey and other senior military leaders to the White House.

PRESIDENT OBAMA: They care about this. And they’re angry about it, and I heard directly from all of them that they’re ashamed by some of what’s happened.

MARGARET WARNER: Some in Congress say the solution lies partly outside the command ranks. A bipartisan group of senators, led by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, introduced legislation this week removing commanders from deciding whether to prosecute all serious crimes, including sexual assault.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, D-N.Y.: Today, we’re standing in a united front to take on these this issues with new legislation that will fundamentally remove the decision-making from the chain of command and gives that discretion to an experienced military prosecutor, where it belongs.

MARGARET WARNER: In two recent high-profile cases, Air Force generals threw out convictions of sexual misconduct.

Today, Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey said that a decade of war may have undermined accountability on sexual assault.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman: You might argue that we have become a little too forgiving because, if a perpetrator shows up at a court-martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, there is certainly the risk that we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime.

MARGARET WARNER: But he appeared to push back against the Gillibrand proposal, saying:

MARTIN DEMPSEY: In our system, we give a commander life-and-death decision-making authority. I can’t imagine going forward to solve this issue without commanders involved.

MARGARET WARNER: Hagel suggested more openness on the question.

CHUCK HAGEL: We’re looking at everything. And we’re listening to victims carefully, closely.

MARGARET WARNER: Other proposed bills in the Senate would improve record-keeping of sexual misconduct complaints and create new standards for filling sexual assault prevention positions in the military. That second point has come into sharp relief lately with the removal of two of those officials.

The first, Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, headed the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention Program until he was arrested on charges of sexual battery. And this week, it was disclosed that an Army sergeant who was a sexual assault prevention officer at Fort Hood, Texas, is being criminally investigated on sex crime allegations.

And for more on this, I’m joined by Wall Street Journal Pentagon reporter Julian Barnes.

Julian, welcome.

OK. You were at that press conference today. Parse this for us. How did you read their response to this growing pressure on the Hill?

JULIAN BARNES, The Wall Street Journal: Well, they are clearly open to some of these reforms.

You saw just a few weeks ago they were pushing back much more firmly on Sen. Gillibrand’s proposal, saying that military commanders needed to retain this authority. Secretary Hagel said today that open to options where they’re reviewing the proposals. We also heard from the Air Force chief of staff today, who said he personally supported it, and that’s been a shift in the military. They see the writing on the wall.

MARGARET WARNER: Especially coming from the Air Force.

But did you detect any difference between Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey and Secretary Hagel on this question?

JULIAN BARNES: Well, your piece pointed out just so, and there is a little bit of a difference there.

The military has wanted to preserve their justice system as it is, which gives an enormous amount of power to commanders. They can decide whether cases go forward. They can vacate sentences and convictions afterwards. Now, there’s been a series of high-profile cases where those convictions have been vacated, and there’s been a huge backlash from Congress. There’s no way the system is going to stay the way it is.

MARGARET WARNER: Do you think, though, that Secretary Hagel and the president could be caught between the military brass and sort of the demands from the public and the Hill?

JULIAN BARNES: There’s a possibility of that, but we have seen over the last few weeks, as this scandal has continued, that the military is slowly shifting.

There was two months ago resistance to any change in the military justice system. Week by week, they are coming on board to the congressional …

MARGARET WARNER: Now , tell us what’s behind — not what’s behind, but Secretary Hagel did today issue the written directive for what he had said two days ago, which is, we’re going to rescreen all these sexual assault prevention, not just officers, but everybody involved, and all the recruiters.

How rigorous — first of all, what are they looking for there and how rigorous is it going to be?

JULIAN BARNES: Well, I think now it’s going to be quite rigorous. I mean, I think if you look back in the past, this wasn’t an issue that the military put the highest priority on.

Things have changed now. The military is making this their top priority. You heard Gen. Odierno talk about it. You heard Secretary Hagel talk about it and, most importantly, the president. So where you might have had maybe not your top-notch people in these jobs, I think more and more, we’re going to see the best and brightest get assigned these duties.

MARGARET WARNER: Which hasn’t been the case up until now, you mean. If you had a superstar or a budding superstar, you weren’t going to make him or her the sexual abuse prevention officer.

JULIAN BARNES: That’s right. That’s right. And now they’re going to take the top noncommissioned officers and say, hey, in addition to this duty, you are going to do this, because it’s the Army’s top priority.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, these — that proposal of Gillibrand’s, some of the others on the Hill, what they’re talking about today, all deal with what to do after some assault has occurred. But is there concern in the Pentagon that there’s a deeper problem with the basic military climate and culture? What are you hearing about that?

JULIAN BARNES: Very much so.

And the military officers are acknowledging that, that there is a cultural shift that needs to be made. And you have heard them talk about this. But this is a difficult thing to change. It’s a difficult thing to ferret out. Where is there a locker room mentality and attitude that may sort of signal to some people that it’s OK to do some of this stuff, which, in fact, is a crime?

And, you know, it’s war-fighting culture, and sometimes that crosses the line in other ways, and so changing it is difficult. You want to keep people’s — hone their edges, as in combat, but still make sure that they are, you know, following the law, being respectful, and not, you know, objectifying any group of people.

MARGARET WARNER: Including women.

You heard I guess it was — it was Joint Chiefs Chairman Dempsey respond to the question about both alcohol as a factor and a sort of decade of war. What do the — what’s he really talking about there, and what do the reported cases at least say about the involvement of those two factors?

JULIAN BARNES: Well, they’re — they’re important in two ways here.

We — you know, there are no easy answers in sexual assault, what causes it, why we have seen a spike. It’s very similar to the military’s suicide issue in that respect. These are complex issues. They have roots both in the military and in the wider culture.

A decade of war has led to soldiers, Marines, airmen, sailors, coming back strained and, some cases, isolated. Some of those things can lead to the abuse of drugs or alcohol. That has been shown to make incidents of sexual abuse/assault more prevalent. So that’s issue one. Does it increase the incident?

And then there’s also the issue of when these get prosecuted. Does a commander say, hey, look, this guy’s been through a lot, this guy has been blown up in Iraq, blown up in Afghanistan, we’re going to cut him some slack? It certainly happens on non-sexual assault cases, a shoplifting, a bar fight.

MARGARET WARNER: Really?

JULIAN BARNES: And — but now they’re saying, we’re not going to let this happen when it comes to sexual assault. We’re going to have a zero tolerance policy.

MARGARET WARNER: Well, Julian Barnes, Wall Street Journal, thank you.

JULIAN BARNES: Thank you.