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Does rise in military sexual assault reporting signal progress in the crisis?

May 1, 2014 at 6:08 PM EST
The Pentagon has seen a 50 percent rise in cases of sexual assault being reported, following escalated measures to prevent and combat rampant attacks within the ranks and amid growing pressure from Congress and the White House. Gwen Ifill gets reaction from former Capt. Anu Bhagwati of the Service Women's Action Network and retired Lt. Col. Geoffrey Corn, a former Army lawyer.
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GWEN IFILL: The Pentagon, which has been under fire in recent years over sexual assaults within the military, reported today that the number of reported cases has jumped by 50 percent.

The rise in reported cases came as the Pentagon stepped up its campaign to prevent and combat sexual assaults in its ranks.

CHUCK HAGEL, Secretary of Defense: Every single person in the military, every single person, must take personal responsibility for helping stop sexual violence within our ranks.

GWEN IFILL: From Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on down, the military says it’s encouraging victims to come forward, while holding the chain of command more accountable. But Hagel conceded today, there’s still a long way to go.

CHUCK HAGEL: We must each be responsible for our own actions, but we also must step up and take action when we see something happening that undermines our values and puts one of our own at risk. The victims are not only human beings. They’re fellow soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines. We cannot let them down.

GWEN IFILL: More than 5,000 military sexual assaults were reported in the 2013 fiscal year, which ran through last September. That’s up sharply from nearly 3,400 cases reported the previous year. The figures also show male victims made up 14 percent of last year’s cases.

Pentagon officials say the figures don’t reflect an actual rise in crime, but an increased willingness by victims to speak up. That’s crucial, because the military is under pressure to act.

The chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army General Martin Dempsey, said as much to NewsHour earlier this year.

GEN. MARTIN DEMPSEY, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff: We are currently on the clock, if you will. The president of the United States said to us in December, you know what? You have got about a year to review this thing, and show me you can make a difference.

GWEN IFILL: But New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who led the fight to take sexual assault investigations away from commanders, said increased reporting is not enough.

“More reporting is not the end game,” she said in a statement. “More people coming forward and not receiving justice only further erodes trust in the system.”

The report found 73 percent of the accused assailants last year were prosecuted. That’s up from 66 percent in 2012.

To assess this latest report, we get two views. Former Marine Corps Captain Anu Bhagwati is the executive director and co-founder of Service Women’s Action Network, and retired Lieutenant Colonel Geoffrey Corn, a former Army lawyer who now teaches criminal law and national security at South Texas College of Law.

Thank you both for joining us.

Anu Bhagwati, that 50 percent increase in reporting sounds like a big number. Is it the correct measure?

FMR. CAPT. ANU BHAGWATI (RET.), Service Women’s Action Network: It’s not the only measure.

It’s a good sign that there is increased reporting among troops. But we need to also look at the rates of prosecution, the rates of conviction. As you pointed out, there is a small jump in prosecution, but conviction rates are staying steady. And there’s really been no fundamental military justice reform to deal with why perpetrators aren’t being put behind bars, where they belong.

Essentially, perpetrators are getting retake recycled back into the system going from unit to unit and perpetrating sexual assaults. And with these repeat offenders, and we’re just creating thousands upon thousands of victims. So, yes, increased reporting is a good sign, but we need to look at the full spectrum of military justice reform. And that is why Senator Gillibrand’s bill, which would actually professionalize the system and leave trained prosecutors in charge of that military justice system, would be a very necessary step.

GWEN IFILL: It should be said her bill didn’t pass the Senate. An alternative did and is now awaiting action in the House.

Professor Corn, what is your sense about these numbers? Does it seem to you like progress is being made?

I think it absolutely indicates that progress is being made. Over the last several years, Congress and the secretary of defense have instituted a number of measures to increase reporting, to increase confidence in the victims of sexual violence that if they report the case will be handled appropriately.

And to have this number of increased reports is an indicator that those efforts are working. And without these reports, we can’t conduct the criminal investigations to determine whether to prosecute somebody.

GWEN IFILL: But what about that question about prosecution; is that not the correct measure, Professor?

LT. COL. GEOFFREY CORN, Former Army Lawyer: Well, I have to say I find it troubling to suggest that because every allegation doesn’t result in a conviction that there is a failure in the system.

Actually, I think an increased acquittal rate is an important indicator that commanders and the lawyers that advise them are taking very challenging cases to trial. And that’s wholly appropriate. So what we have seen is a significant increase in prosecution rates, and, as you note, an increase, a slight increase in conviction rates.

The important point here is that, when an allegation is made, the victim has confidence that the allegation will be treated appropriately under the law. And I also disagree with the assertion that there have not been significant changes made to the system.

In fact, one of the most profound changes that was made to the system was the rule that only very senior commanders may now make decisions on how to deal with an allegation of sexual assault in the military, which wasn’t the case before. So today captains and majors have no authority, even if they’re in positions of command, to snuff out an allegation of sexual violence.

That allegation has to go to a senior colonel or a general officer or admiral, and only at that level will the decision be made in conjunction with a very senior military lawyer how to deal with the case under the law.

GWEN IFILL: Anu Bhagwati, let’s talk about who is making these reports. Would you like to respond to that first? You look like you wanted to respond to that first.

CAPT. ANU BHAGWATI: Sure. Absolutely.

We have worked on every single reform that has actually been legislated over the last five years, so I’m intimately aware of those reforms. But, fundamental, when it comes to sexual trauma, which is a very specific kind of assault, a very personal betrayal-oriented trauma, which I have learned over the over the last few years is even more traumatic in many cases than sexual assault in a civilian environment, because of the confined nature of the military, because it’s such an insular culture.

And so when we look at this crime, we have to understand why is it that the vast majority of victims are under-reporting? It’s because of a lack of faith and confidence in the system. And so while, yes, we actually worked to implement that reform in the DOD that moved that so-called convening authority, that authority to take a case forward, away from junior officers and moved it to senior officers, really, victims were telling us that even the senior officers can actually be biased.

And we have seen that. Even in the last few months, there have been a series of very high-profile cases that the media has brought forth about general officers once again not doing the right thing and sweeping cases of sexual crimes under the rug.

And so I would like to see — I hope the professor would agree with me — a military justice system in which both victims and the accused are served equally. And we have seen with this current system that even the accused can be treated unfairly, because there is such intense political pressure.

GWEN IFILL: All right, I really would like to get to the question of who these victims are, because there is an interesting figure in the report, Geoffrey Corn, that says that 14 percent of those making reports are men. But that only makes it 1.2 percent of the force, because, of course, the military is overwhelmingly male.

Why — is that an incident that there are fewer sexual assaults involving men, or that they are even less likely to make reports?

LT. COL. GEOFFREY CORN: I think it’s a combination of the both — of both.

I think statistically there probably are viewer sexual assaults committed against men. But I also think that the stigma of being the victim of sexual violence or sexual assault for a man is significantly greater statistically than it is for a woman, and particularly within the military culture.

And I think this is an issue that leadership of the military really have to tackle head on. And I think they’re working on that. It’s a very difficult issue to deal with. Ultimately, as I said, we need victims to be confident that they can report, whether they are male or female.

And as you noted at the outset, the number, the significant increase in reporting seems to rebut the suggestion that because commanders are in charge of ultimately the decision of what cases go to trial, we cannot enhance the reporting levels and the confidence in the system when you do report.

If that were the case, then because that element of the system has not been changed yet, we wouldn’t have seen this spike in reporting.

GWEN IFILL: Anu Bhagwati, even though you represent the Service Women’s Action Network, do you have evidence that men too have been as involved in this?

CAPT. ANU BHAGWATI: Absolutely. Over time, actually, because of the disproportionate ratio of men to women in the military, men have made up the majority of sexual assault victims in the military, which is a lot for people to sort of wrap their heads around when they first hear that. But men make up the majority of victims all over time in the military.

And, yes, I would agree with the colonel that they are less likely to come forward. I hope that’s changing. One of the actually significant changes in messaging that I heard today from the DOD that I was very optimistic about was it seems to be the first year that the DOD is embracing the idea that rape and assault are not a woman’s issue, or a female issue, that this is not just a service issue, but it’s an issue, a crime of power and control, which we have always known in sort of the sexual violence community.

But I don’t think the military has really fundamentally ingrained that into the cultural understanding of what this crime is about. And so it can happen to a man. It can happen to a woman. It doesn’t matter what your age is or what your orientation is sexually. This is a crime of power.

CAPT. ANU BHAGWATI: And hearing the DOD urge us all to embrace male victims and to support them was really a shift.

GWEN IFILL: OK.

And the investigation is going to continue.

Anu Bhagwati of the Service Women’s Action Network, and Geoffrey Corn, thank you both very much.

CAPT. ANU BHAGWATI: Thank you.

LT. COL. GEOFFREY CORN: Thank you.