Many of the rules were under consideration by Congress, and lawmakers generally welcomed them. But some said they would continue to press for an overhaul of military law that would require uniformed prosecutors, instead of commanders, to oversee investigations of sexual abuse and other serious crimes.
“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.), a member of the Armed Services Committee. She is the lead sponsor of a bill that would take sexual-assault cases and other crimes out of the chain of command.
Gillibrand’s proposal has met strong resistance from the Pentagon and the leaders of the House and Senate armed services panels, and it was voted down in committee in June. But her staff says support for her plan has grown since then, with 46 senators publicly backing it. A strenuous debate in the full Senate is expected this fall.
Among the policy changes announced by the Pentagon on Thursday is a rule that will assign legal representatives to all sexual-assault victims so that they have someone to formally advocate on their behalf during investigations and trials. Victims would also be granted the opportunity to submit statements and be heard during the sentencing of convicted offenders.
The Air Force already provides legal advocates to victims of sexual assault as part of a pilot program. Defense officials said that the program has worked well and that they want to extend it to the other branches of the armed forces.
“These are best practices that we have garnered from all of the services,” Jessica Wright, the Pentagon’s acting undersecretary for personnel, said of the changes. “The bottom line is, sexual assault is not tolerated, it’s not condoned, it’s not ignored.”
Even lawmakers who said they generally supported the measures said the Pentagon had been slow to act. “I think it’s wise for our military leaders to get on this train rather than get run over by it,” said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a member of the Armed Services Committee.
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) called the assignment of victim advocates in particular “a major step forward,” noting that she has introduced a bill that would do just that.
“While these measures are by no means a silver bullet, it is inexcusable for us to wait any longer to address this issue and I’m glad Secretary Hagel understands these actions are long overdue,” she said in a statement.