Champion of Military Sexual Assault Awareness Effort Questions if Change Is Possible

BY Kwame Holman  May 9, 2013 at 5:43 PM EST

Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. Photo by Chris Maddaloni/ CQ Roll Call.

Tuesday should have been a good day for Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif. Her signature issue in Congress — reducing sexual assaults in the U.S. military — had just been forcefully endorsed by President Barack Obama, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Senate Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich.

But Speier was not optimistic that major change is coming.

“We are building momentum and I want to believe this is a tipping point,” Speier told me from Capitol Hill that afternoon. “But I guess I’ve been around politics for too long.”‘

The president, Hagel and Levin spoke out after front-page treatment of the longstanding and intractable problem of sexual harassment and attacks on women and men in the military services by their fellow service members.

On Tuesday, the Defense Department released a survey that said the problem was getting worse. Reports of unwanted sexual contact rose by more than 35 percent from 2010 to 2012, to an estimated 26,000 incidents.

The survey estimated 12,100 of the 203,000 active duty women and 13,900 of 1.2 million men on active duty were sexually assaulted. But fewer than 3,400 incidents were reported to the military chain of command.

And that, says Speier, is the problem — commanding officers who have sole responsibility to take action against perpetrators often don’t. And victims know it.

“It’s a closed universe. There is a mentality of ‘Oh, boys will be boys.’ The lack of prosecutions and convictions sends a message to the victims of ‘Oh, don’t bother because you’re not going to get the justice you deserve,’ and to the perpetrator, that as long as you’re a good soldier, you’ve got a free pass,” Speier told the NewsHour.

“Imagine an environment where if you’ve got good military character — that’s the term of art used — if you are what’s called a water-walker, that’s a mitigating factor in terms of being punished for any crime,” she said.

Speier says it’s now clear commanders can’t police their own ranks.

“The time is now. Stop tinkering around the edges. Stop with the nice talk about ‘zero tolerance.’ Stop with the ask-her-was-she-sober type of training and do what has been done in other countries that we mimic,” Speier said.

“Our [military justice system] is based on the British system and in the British system and Australia and in Canada, they have taken the reporting out of the chain of command and placed it in a separate office within the military that evaluates whether or not there’s evidence to move forward and prosecute the case.”

The Pentagon report on sexual assaults set off a flurry of declarations from members of Congress on both sides of the Capitol and from both parties to push the military to fulfill its promises — also contained in the report — to crack down.

Speir on Thursday attended a bipartisan White House meeting on the issue with members of Congress and top presidential aide Valerie Jarrett, her office said.

White House Press Secretary Jay Carney told reporters aboard Air Force One that the meeting “reflects the level of concern that you heard from the president the other day at his press conference with the president of South Korea.”

“He has zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military and he was clear that as commander in chief, he believes that anyone who engages in sexual assault is dishonoring the uniform that they wear,” Carney said.

But neither the president, the defense secretary nor any of the top military policy leaders in Congress has endorsed the call by Speier and fellow Democrat Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York for a separate investigative and prosecutorial body within the military. And Speier admits it’s a difficult sell.

“This is going to be a sea change. This is going to require the military to internally do some soul-searching and it’s going to require a whole conduct shift. And that’s not easy,” she said.

And she says she’s also seen the intensity of members wane before.

“You know, there’s so many issues that are bombarding members. This is an issue today. There’ll be another issue tomorrow. We all suffer from A.D.D.,” said Speier. “So I don’t know if we can count on it. But that’s why I’ve been beating this drum. I’ve talked about this issue for two years now.”

The next big test begins next week when Gillibrand introduces her bill to take sexual assault adjudication and all serious crime out of the hands of unit commanders.

Tune in to the NewsHour in the coming weeks for a full report on the issue of sexual assault in the military and the legislative push to address it.