THE PATTERN is all too familiar. Rocked by sexual abuse within its ranks — 1992 at Tailhook, 1996 at the Aberdeen Proving Ground, 2002 at the Air Force Academy, 2011 at Lackland Air Force Base — the military vows no tolerance and promises action. But abuse and a culture of impunity persist. It is time for fundamental change in how the military investigates and prosecutes these pernicious crimes.
The Pentagon said this week that an estimated 26,000 sexual assault reports involving service members were recorded in 2012, compared to 19,000 in 2011. The study by the Defense Department, based on anonymous surveys, shows that only a fraction of the assaults are reported: 3,192 in 2011 and 3,374 in 2012.
The sobering news came on the heels of new embarrassments and controversies. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the official in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention and response program, was arrested Sunday and charged with sexual battery after police said he tried to grope a woman in an Arlington parking lot. The nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helmsas vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command was held up in the Senate as new questions were raised about the policy that gives sweeping authority to commanding officers to overturn military jury convictions and modify sentences. Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh’s Senate testimony blaming the “hookup” culture prevalent among young people provided a glaring example of not seeing sexual assault for what it is: a crime of violence.
President Obama expressed appropriate disgust with the military’s inability to make progress on this issue. “I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programs or training, or ultimately folks look the other way,” he said Tuesday in response to the release of the Pentagon report. But there have been many promises of action over the past two decades. It’s understandable that Congress, fueled by the outrage of female senators, is readying a variety of legislative approaches to the issue.
The key issue is whether the traditional military justice system — with its adherence to chain of command in deciding which cases should be investigated and how they should be prosecuted — is equipped to deal with sexual abuse cases. After all, most victims report that their perpetrator was of a higher rank and fear their claims won’t be taken seriously or, even worse, will subject them to retaliation. Last year’s decision by then-Defense Secretary Leon Panetta to push sexual assault cases up the chain of command for review was acknowledgment of these inherent tensions. The new openness by Panetta’s successor, Chuck Hagel, to changing the system that allows a commander to set aside convictions and sentences was recognition of the need to give some ground.
Defense Department officials, though, are unwilling to consider taking military justice out of the chain of command because of a fear that it will erode order and discipline. Yet America’s allied modern militaries — notably Britain, Canada, Israel and Australia — operate systems in which prosecuting authorities make decisions about crimes. Plans by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to introduce legislation that would adjudicate sexual assault cases outside the chain of command by trained military prosecutors will provide the opportunity to examine those models. A new approach is needed.