REFORMS SIGNED into law last week of how the military deals with sexual assault are eminently sensible and clearly overdue. Whether the changes go far enough in combating these pernicious crimes is another question. President Obama rightly appears skeptical: He delivered an ultimatum to military leaders to deliver results within a year or face even more change.
“If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms,” Mr. Obama said. He set Dec. 1 as the deadline for the Pentagon to show “substantial improvements” in sexual assault prevention and response, including military justice. Mr. Obama’s comments came after Congress approved a defense authorization bill that changes how the Pentagon handles rape and other sexual crimes in the ranks. Among the provisions in the bill, signed by the president Thursday, are new legal protections for victims, a bar against commanders overturning jury convictions or reducing sentences and the discharge of military members who have been convicted of sexual crimes.
Mr. Obama did not detail additional reforms he might consider and which, as commander in chief, he could force the military to adopt. A key measure sought by many advocates for sexual assault victims would take the prosecution of sexual crimes out of the chain of command and make it the responsibility of independent prosecutors. Such adjudication would eliminate the conflict of interest when both accused and accuser are in the same command, and it would address documented concerns that victims, who generally tend to be women and men of lower rank than their attackers, don’t report crimes for fear of retaliation or bias. Military officials say a commander’s authority to refer service members to court martial is essential in maintaining order and discipline, but the United States’ modern allies, including Britain and Israel, successfully use systems of independent adjudication.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who is leading the effort for change, failed to get that measure included as part of the National Defense Authorization Act but is pressing for a stand-alone vote that could come as early as next month, when the Senate reconvenes. There are 53 senators, including Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and some Republicans, publicly supporting the bill, but they face an uphill battle to secure the needed 60 votes as well as a majority in the House.
Ms. Gillibrand is right to feel urgency about a problem that has persisted for decades despite high-level promises of zero tolerance. “I do not want to wait another year to enact the one reform survivors have asked for,” she said in a statement reacting to Mr. Obama’s comments. Tough action, not just tough talk, is what’s needed.