The Pentagon has no excuse now. In a matter of days, the depth of its long-neglected problem of sexual assault within its ranks has been made plain. Over the weekend, the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force was arrested by the Arlington County, Va., police department and charged with sexual battery. The police report said that just after midnight he approached a woman in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks.
On Tuesday, the larger picture emerged, the Pentagon releasing a survey that found 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year, a 38 percent increase since 2010. The military also noted that it officially recorded 3,374 sexual assault incidents. In other words, victims (much more often women yet men, too) still are reluctant to come forward, fearing retribution or otherwise lacking confidence in the system.
President Obama expressed his fury, pushing the Pentagon “to step up our game exponentially” to prevent sexual assaults. Chuck Hagel, the defense secretary, told reporters, “What’s going on is just not acceptable. We will get control of this.”
How, precisely? Hagel has called for a study that would make recommendations by Nov. 1 on better ways to hold commanders more accountable for sexual assaults under their leadership. One advance would remove from commanders the authority to overturn military jury decisions.
U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, has held up the confirmation of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to be vice commander of the Air Force Space Command because she reversed a jury decision in a sexual assault case. Here is an appropriate application of legislative pressure, and the Pentagon appears open to such a change.
What Hagel resists is the more dramatic step proposed by U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat. She wants to replace the current system for handling sexual assault cases, removing it entirely from the chain of command, achieving greater independence and accountability. Now Hagel and others at the Pentagon have the opportunity to show that such a change is unneeded. They soon can deliver substantial progress in prosecuting and diminishing sexual assaults. Otherwise, the senator’s plan should carry the day.