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Pentagon has had time to fix sexual assault problem

This is one battle we’d prefer The Pentagon lose.

The opponent is a proposal by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take the decision to bring charges in military sexual assault cases out of the hands of military commanders and put them in the hands of independent military prosecutors.

It would also take away the ability of those commanders to overturn sexual assault convictions, something which has caused outrage among victims and their advocates.

The topic of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact in the military is not a new one, but it is one that has been trending in the wrong direction.

As we reported this summer, the U.S. Department of Defense has issued reports estimating that some 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in the military in 2012, of which 3,400 cases were investigated. Another Defense Department study showed that more than one in five female service members reported unwanted sexual contact while they were in the military.

As bad as those numbers are, they don’t represent the worst of it: Those seeking to reform the military culture say many such assaults – perhaps even most – go unreported because victims fear that the military culture is one of tolerance, or at least blind acquiescence.

Top Pentagon officials have repeatedly come to Congress and trumpeted a “zero-tolerance policy” where sexual assaults are concerned, but the numbers and anecdotal evidence suggest that’s not the case. Pentagon brass have also fought efforts to wrest control of prosecutions from the normal chain of command and put it in the hands of independent prosecutors, but it makes sense to do so, given the epidemic that seems to pervade the military culture.

The problem with allowing commanders to call the shots on prosecutions is that they may have an inverse interest in reporting and prosecuting sexual assaults. The fewer instances that come to light, the better it looks for the commander, even if the lower numbers run counter to reality.

Sexual assault is hardly a problem unique to the military. When we searched the term “military sexual assaults” even within our own website, we were overrun with local stories about allegations of civilian sexual assaults.

But we hold our military to a higher standard and afford them a level of respect that eclipses those we give most civilians. It is not unreasonable, therefore, to expect better results in this area.

Military leaders have had more than enough time to turn words into action. That they have failed to do so makes it entirely proper that Congress should intervene.

The Gillibrand proposal provides multiple layers of oversight against cover-ups and important protections for victims.

The Obama administration has not backed the Gillibrand bill, but 50 senators have.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen has backed the Gillibrand bill, while Sen. Kelly Ayotte is supporting another that she thinks will be more effective, result in more accountability and provide more protections to victims. It also has the support of The Pentagon and would allow commanders a continued role in prosecutorial decisions.

We think the time to give The Pentagon the benefit of the doubt on this issue has long since passed.

A new approach is called for and while the Gillibrand proposal seems to be the one around which a critical mass is coalescing, whatever form the final bill takes, it’s clear that a change in the country’s military culture is coming, and that it’s long overdue.

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