WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday announced new steps to combat sexual assaults in the military, with serious offenses such as rape and forcible sodomy subject to a court-martial review at the Army colonel or Navy captain level.
Just days after the Pentagon said the number of reported sexual assaults in the U.S. military had increased slightly last year, Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, unveiled the initiatives at a news conference on Capitol Hill. The two held a closed-door discussion with a bipartisan group of House Armed Services Committee members who have pushed for the Pentagon to take aggressive steps to stop sexual assaults and aid the victims.
Among the policy changes is the requirement that a higher authority within the military will review the most serious cases, a step to ensure that cases remain within the chain of command and leaders are held responsible. Panetta also announced the creation of a special victims unit within each of the services and an explanation of sexual assault policies to all service members within 14 days of their entry in the military.
These initiatives are likely to be included in the sweeping defense bill that the Armed Services panel will be crafting in the coming weeks.
"The changes they are making today — and ones they made last year — significantly strengthen the protection of the victim and the prosecutorial system," said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio. He and Reps. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., and Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., met with Panetta and Dempsey.
The announcement of the new initiatives came days after the Pentagon said the number of reported sexual assaults in the U.S. military increased slightly last year and officials were using court martials more often to discipline offenders.
In its annual report to Congress, the Defense Department said there were 3,192 reports of sexual assault involving service members as either victims or perpetrators at the end of September 2011, a 1 percent increase over the previous year. The number of reported cases in 2010 was 3,158 assaults, in the previous year it was 3,230.
The Pentagon has estimated that 86 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.
The report also found that courts martial were used more frequently now in disciplining offenders. Of the 791 military sexual offenders punished last year, 62 percent faced a court martial. That compares with 52 percent in 2010 and 30 percent in 2007. The proportion of cases in which less severe forms of discipline are pursued, such as administrative actions and discharges, has declined in that same period.
"Sexual assault is a crime that has no place in the Department of Defense, and the department's leadership has a zero tolerance policy against it," the report said. "It is an affront to the basic America values we defend, and may degrade military readiness, subvert strategic goodwill and forever change the lives of victims and their families."