The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Pentagon had its chance to fix sexual misconduct. Time for Congress to intervene.

U.S. soldiers in Arlington. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

“TO PUT it bluntly, we are not performing up to the standards and expectations we have for ourselves or each other. This is unacceptable. We cannot shrink from facing the challenge head on. We must, and will, do better.” That was acting defense secretary Patrick Shanahan reacting to the grim report of a surge in sexual assaults in the U.S. military. His words would be inspiring if not for the sad fact this is not the first time — indeed, far from it — that the Pentagon has vowed to root out sexual misconduct.

As far back as 1992 — after the military was rocked by the Tailhook scandal and then-Defense Secretary Richard B. Cheney declared “a zero-tolerance policy” for sexual assault — there has been acknowledgment of the problem and promises of action. But for all the tough talk and all the new programs that have been rolled out, there has been little progress. That was evident in data released last week, which showed a nearly 38 percent increase over two years in sexual assaults reported by service members.

The Defense Department’s annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military estimated that there were 20,500 service members who experienced unwanted sexual contact — rape, forcible sodomy, groping and other offenses — across the military branches in the 2018 fiscal year, based on a survey of active-duty service members. That’s an alarming spike from the 14,900 that were estimated in the previous survey in 2016. The increase was mostly in assaults on female active-duty members; the report showed that the youngest (ages 17 to 24) and lowest-ranking women were most at risk. The data also showed a big gap between those who say they were assaulted and those who reported the incidents.

The new numbers, a four-year high, came despite a series of reforms touted by the Pentagon, including 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. The report underscores the need to overhaul a military justice system that has fundamentally failed to hold sexual offenders to account.

“The status quo is not working,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) of the current system, which gives commanding officers with built-in conflicts of interest the authority over sexual assault cases. Ms. Gillibrand, a presidential candidate, has unsuccessfully pushed to take the prosecution of sexual crimes out of the chain of command and make it the responsibility of independent and specially trained prosecutors. Military officials have opposed the reform, arguing a commander’s authority to refer service members to court-martial is key to maintaining order and discipline. But several U.S. allies, including Britain, Canada and Israel, successfully use independent adjudication.

The Pentagon has had plenty of time to deal with sexual misconduct. This latest report is yet more evidence of its inability to fix the system. Ms. Gillibrand is right: “It’s time for Congress to step up.”

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