WASHINGTON — — Hours after Congress passed a range of proposals to combat sexual assaults in the armed forces, President Barack Obama ordered military leaders on Friday to conduct a yearlong review of their progress in eliminating rape from the ranks — and threatened further changes if he is not satisfied.
"So long as our women and men in uniform face the insider threat of sexual assault, we have an urgent obligation to do more to support victims and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes," Obama said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, ordered by the president to conduct a "full-scale" review and report back next December, said the Pentagon welcomed Obama's attention and shared his commitment to fight sexual assaults.
Reaction among sexual assault survivors and their advocates was mixed.
Jennifer McClendon, a former sailor who says she was assaulted several times by a supervisor over a period of weeks while serving on the USS Donald Cook in 2000, called Obama's order "a good thing."
But the Silver Spring woman said she was skeptical that commanders would implement the changes that Obama is expected to sign into law.
"I don't think that just because the requirement comes from the president that anyone is going to take him seriously," McClendon said. "The military has demonstrated a long tradition of bucking authority."
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said changes so far have fallen short of the "fundamental reform needed" to instill victims' confidence in the military justice system.
The New York Democrat has sponsored legislation to take prosecutions out of the chain of command, where officers have the sole authority to decide whether to send troops accused of sexual assault to court-martial, and give it to trained lawyers.
"I do not want to wait another year to enact the one reform survivors have asked for in removing commanders with no legal training and conflicts of interest from the decision of whether or not to prosecute a rape or sexual assault," Gillibrand said.
Sen. Ben Cardin is a co-sponsor of Gillibrand's legislation, which is expected to come to a vote early next year. Reps. Elijah Cummings, Donna Edwards, John Sarbanes and Chris Van Hollen all have signed on to similar legislation in the House. All are Maryland Democrats.
Military leaders, including Hagel and the Joint Chiefs of Staff and their allies in Congress, which include the chairmen of the House and Senate armed services committees, oppose taking prosecutions out of the chain of command. They say the commander's authority to refer troops to court-martial is an essential tool for maintaining order and discipline — and for holding officers accountable for their units. They say efforts that are already underway and the heightened attention now focused on sexual assaults should improve the system.
The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 service members were subjected to unwanted sexual contact last year. But only 3,374 reported an assault, and only 594 suspects were sent to court-martial.
Female service members are far more likely than males to be sexually assaulted, according to Defense Department data. But because male service members outnumber females, the Pentagon believes the majority of victims are men.
Those men are less likely than women to report an assault. And when they do, as The Baltimore Sun reported this week, military authorities are less likely to identify a suspect, refer charges to a court-martial or discharge a perpetrator.
The Senate approved new legal protections for sexual assault victims late Thursday as part of the sweeping National Defense Authorization Act. The legislation cleared the House earlier in the week, and Obama is expected to sign it.
Among its provisions, the law would eliminate the statute of limitations on sexual assaults, preclude commanders from using a suspect's good military character as a reason for not filing charges, and require civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case.
It would also strip commanders of the authority to dismiss the findings of a court-martial — a power that drew attention this year after an Air Force general tossed the sexual assault conviction of a fighter pilot under his command — and bar them from reducing sentences ordered by military judges or juries.
The law would criminalize retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault and mandate a dishonorable discharge for anyone convicted of a sexual assault.
And it would require every brigade to have a certified sexual assault nurse examiner trained to gather evidence with a rape kit, grant victims "reasonable" protection from the accused, and increase protections for whistle-blowers.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski called the legislation "historic."
"It strengthens the justice system," the Maryland Democrat said. "It provides counsel and support for victims. Most importantly, it provides a serious deterrent for those who dare take advantage of our most patriotic Americans."
Obama has not declared a position on taking prosecutions out of the chain of command, but suggested Friday that he is open to further changes. He ordered Hagel and Joint Chiefs Chairman Martin Dempsey to report back to him by Dec. 1, 2014.
"If I do not see the kind of progress I expect," Obama said, "then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks."