Amid criticism, Pentagon unveils anti-rape plans

WASHINGTON — — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled new initiatives Thursday to halt rape and other sexual assaults within the U.S. military after the Pentagon released a report showing an 8 percent increase in reported incidents over the past year.

The 136-page report, an annual assessment, said nearly two-thirds of sexual assault victims inside the military also complained of retaliation from within the services, a figure unchanged from two years ago.


Based on anonymous surveys of service members, the military estimated that 19,000 troops were victims of "unwanted sexual contact," a definition that covers a broad range of offenses. That figure was down from an estimated 26,000 two years ago, but about the same as in 2010.

The Pentagon has been under intense pressure from Congress to show progress in preventing and prosecuting sex offenses, and the report by the Rand Corp. gave ammunition to both sides.


Hagel, who announced his resignation as secretary of defense last month, cited "indications of real progress" in efforts to prevent assaults and abuse. But, he told reporters at the Pentagon, "we still have a long way to go."

Baltimore attorney Susan L. Burke, who represents dozens of people who say they were sexually assaulted while serving in the military, said the Pentagon's positive take on the report was an attempt to obscure serious problems.

"This military system of justice remains gravely broken," she said.

Burke said service members who report assaults face a high rate of retaliation. The only way to fix the problem, she said, is to take the authority to prosecute sexual assaults away from potentially biased commanders and hand decision-making over to trained lawyers and judges.

"Justice is best served when people don't know each other," she said.

Lawmakers from both parties have rebuked the Pentagon, and some have backed the argument that commanders should be stripped of the power to decide whether to prosecute and punish offenders.

Military officials have pushed back, however, and established measures they said are intended to ensure victims can lodge complaints without fear of being ostracized by their units, seeing their careers suffer or seeing perpetrators protected by the chain of command.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who has focused attention on the issue, said Thursday that the Pentagon has not done enough.


"We have heard how the reforms … were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime," she said in a statement. "Enough is enough. Last December the president said he would give the military and previous reforms a year to work and it is clear they have failed in their mission."

Democratic Rep. Jackie Speier of California said she planned to back legislation that would take sexual assault prosecutions out of direct military control.

"A hostile culture for survivors remains the rule, not the exception," Speier said.

Hagel issued directives to provide more resources for victims, to create a pilot program to boost prevention efforts, and require commanders to do more to stop acts of retaliation.

Pentagon officials said they were encouraged that the number of reported assaults had increased, saying it meant more victims were willing to step forward and report abuses to their superiors. A total of 5,983 men and women reported assaults in the year that ended Sept. 30, up from 5,518 a year earlier.

In a related development, the Navy is investigating allegations that an enlisted sailor aboard a ballistic missile submarine secretly recorded female officers while they showered and dressed, according to the Navy Times, an independent newspaper. The videos allegedly were distributed to crew members aboard the USS Wyoming.


The Navy also said Thursday it was revoking comedian Bill Cosby's title of "honorary chief petty officer." Cosby, 77, faces allegations that he has drugged and sexually assaulted more than a dozen women. His attorneys have denied the allegations, and Cosby has not been charged.

"The Navy is taking this action because allegations against Mr. Cosby are very serious and are in conflict with the Navy's core values of honor, courage and commitment,' the Navy said in a statement.

Cosby served in the Navy from 1956 to 1960. He was honorably discharged as a petty officer 3rd class.

Baltimore Sun reporter Ian Duncan contributed to this article.