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Critics underwhelmed with Pentagon plan to stem military sex assaults

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unleashed an array of new regulations Thursday aimed at stemming sexual assaults in the ranks but the directives will not remove rape-case investigations from the chain of command — a move passionately and frequently urged by some U.S. senators and victims advocates. 

The fresh initiatives — delivered amid what some inside and outside the military describe as a sexual-assault epidemic — are designed to bolster the accountability of commanders to stop sex assaults while boosting victim advocacy and safety, Hagel said in a memo accompanying his directive.

The Defense Department will create legal advocacy programs in each branch to give sexual-assault victims legal representation throughout the judicial process of their cases. Other changes include ensuring that pretrial investigative hearings of assault-related charges are conducted by judge advocate general officers, and giving commanders the option to reassign or transfer a unit member accused of a sex crime to eliminate continued contact with the alleged victim. 

"All of these measures will provide victims additional rights, protections and legal support, and help ensure that sexual assault-related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally," Pentagon press secretary George Little said at a news briefing.  

"Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who honorably serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force," Little added. "It must be stamped out."

Hagel's order drew a mix of tepid approval and disappointment from some of the leading voices in the push to extract all sex-assault cases from the victims' chain of command. 

"The Pentagon taking action is a good thing and these are positive steps forward but it is not the leap forward required to solve the problem," said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. "As we have heard over and over again from the victims, and the top military leadership themselves, there is a lack of trust in the system that has a chilling effect on reporting." 

Armed forces leaders have worked to blunt rising outrage involving their handling of rape allegations, particularly against enlisted women. A Pentagon report in May found that sexual assault within the military is increasing, and that as many as 26,000 instances of sexual assault went unreported in 2012 alone.

In that same year, Gillibrand said, the military prosecuted only 302 sex-assault cases, adding that rate "just isn't good enough under any metric."

"It is time for Congress to seize the opportunity, listen to the victims and create an independent, objective and non-biased military justice system worthy of our brave men and women's service," Gillibrand said. 

The head of Protect Our Defenders (POD), an advocacy group for military sex-assault victims, summed up Hagel's directives as "mostly small tweaks to a broken system." 

While lauding the move to provide rape victims with their own legal representation, POD leader Taryn Meeks, a former Navy JAG officer, said the Pentagon order "falls short of reform that would protect victims from the outset — by keeping the decision to prosecute within the chain of command."

"Prosecutors — and not commanders — must be given the authority to decide whether to proceed to trial," Meeks said. "This change would constitute a fundamental and necessary step toward creating an independent and impartial military justice system" and would offer a starting point "to end this national disgrace."   

In several recent addresses, including in an Aug. 7 speech to Marines, President Barack Obama has vowed his administration would take all steps necessary to "stop these crimes of sexual assault and uphold the honor and integrity that defines our military services," adding that "that message is coming all the way from the top," referencing his own role as commander in chief.

Obama also has said accused sex offenders in the military should be “prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired (and), dishonorably discharged." Those remarks, in turn, have sparked defense lawyers in several of assault cases to contend the president was tainting the trials with undue or unlawful command influence. 

At the Pentagon briefing Thurday, Army Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti, current director of the Joint Staff, acknowledged that "the comments made by the president did result in an impact in some of the cases that were ongoing in the view of the judges involved in those."

"As a result we believed it was necessary, I think the Secretary did, to make a statement, simply to ensure that commanders understood that they act independently based on the merits of a case and to ensure there's no taint in any of the jurisdiction that takes place in any of the cases ongoing now," Scaparrotti said. "I think commanders have and will continue to act independently in line with our justice system."

As part of its sex-assault crackdown, the Pentagon has established an independent panel, which is currently reviewing and assessing the systems used to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate sex crimes and related offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Hagel has met with panel members and vows to "closely review their recommendations when complete."

"Eliminating sexual assault from the armed forces remains one of the Department of Defense's top priorities," Hagel said in a statement. "This effort requires our absolute and sustained commitment to providing a safe environment in which every service member and DoD civilian is free from the threat of sexual harassment and assault."