President Obama expressed support for changes approved by Congress that aim to curb sexual assaults in the military, and he ordered the Pentagon to deliver a full report on its efforts at the end of next year.
But Obama stopped short of endorsing broader reforms sought by some female members of Congress that would remove commanders from determining whether to pursue charges in rape and sexual assault cases and hand the decision to an independent military prosecutor.
The president said in a statement that if he does not see progress by next December "then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks and protect our brave service members who stand guard for us every day at home and around the world."
Obama's remarks came a day after Congress approved the new rules in a defense spending authorization bill. The legislation would end the statute of limitations for cases of sexual assault or rape; bar military commanders from overturning jury convictions in sexual assault and rape cases; make it a crime to retaliate against people who report such crimes; mandate the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of such crimes; and give civilian defense officials more control over prosecutions.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has led the push for reforms with Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), said she spoke with Obama on the issue Thursday and hailed his "deep commitment" to improving the situation.
But she added: "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... Nowhere in America do we allow a boss to decide if an employee was sexually assaulted or not, except the United States military. We owe our service members better.”
The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 troops were assaulted or raped last year. But only a fraction of them, about 3,300, filed reports with military police or prosecutors in that time period. There was particular outrage when an Air Force general stepped in to overturn the sexual-assault conviction of a star fighter pilot.
"As Commander in Chief, I’ve made it clear that these crimes have no place in the greatest military on earth," Obama said.