Hagel: Accountability breakdown was leading factor in sexual assaults

Monday - 5/20/2013, 5:26am EDT

Jared Serbu, DoD reporter, Federal News Radio

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When it comes to the topic of stopping sexual assaults in the military, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said he agreed with President Barack Obama's remarks last week: there's no one silver bullet. But he said he believes one root cause is a breakdown in commanders' accountability.

In a wide-ranging briefing with reporters Friday, Hagel spent about half his time on the matter of military sexual assault. He made clear he doesn't believe there's a single root cause, and the solution is not as simple as firing people to set an example. But at the same time, he kept returning to the topic of accountability, and on the matter of preventing and prosecuting sexual assault, perhaps a lack of it.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel

"If you don't have accountability, you don't have much," he said. "And what we're looking at in every way, many of the directives that I've given this week, two weeks ago, back a month-and-a-half ago, were focused — if not every one of them — on some element of accountability of every chain of command. It is an essential component that somehow has been lacking or broken down. I don't know. But it is a central part of how we fix the problem. There are other pieces, too."

Hagel didn't specify where he believes the accountability breakdowns are in the military chain of command or what should be done to fix them. But he said it appears clear to him that those breakdowns go a long way toward explaining why sexual assault survivors in the military have been unwilling to report crimes through the proper channels-in this case, up the chain of command.

"Starting with some of the questions about victims saying, and rightfully so, that they didn't feel their commanders were accountable enough to be able to come forward and register a complaint, because they thought they would be subject to many things, which is true, which has happened, and then also having no confidence that anything would be done about their complaint. And that needs to be addressed, as well as all the components of this," he said.

Congress paying attention

While military sexual assault is undoubtedly not a new phenomenon, the amount of media and political attention it's getting is. The issue has been thrust to the fore by recent cases, including that of an Air Force officer who headed a sexual assault prevention office but was himself arrested for sexual battery.

On Thursday, Army officials said the manager of the sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., had been relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife. The program he managed was meant to prevent sexual harassment and assault and encourage equal opportunity.

No fewer than 10 bills are circulating on Capitol Hill on the subject, many of them dealing with the accountability questions Hagel is asking. He's already proposed that Congress amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice in order to remove commanders' authority to reverse court martial convictions in sexual assault cases.

Several of the bills would remove the military chain of command from the process of investigating and prosecuting those cases entirely.

Hagel was careful not to endorse any particular piece of legislation, but in a discussion with reporters earlier in the day, Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force Chief of Staff, said he was open to that idea.

Senior military officers are speaking about the problem with increasing bluntness and expressions of regret.

Gen. Martin Dempsey, the Joint Chiefs chairman, on Wednesday called it a "crisis" in the ranks, and on Thursday the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, publicly acknowledged his service's efforts are "failing."

Each branch of the military's service chiefs, secretaries and top enlisted leaders joined Hagel and Dempsey for a meeting with Obama at the White House on the matter on Thursday afternoon.

"They care about this and they are angry about it," Obama said. "Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be."

The president added that because assault victims may be more likely now to come forward with complaints, the number of reported assaults may increase in the short run.

"I then want those trend lines to start going down because that indicates that we're also starting to fix the problem and we've highlighted it, and people who are engaged in despicable behavior, they get fully punished for it," Obama said.

Panel to submit recommendations

Dempsey said during Friday's press briefing that the military has perhaps gone to sleep on the issue over the last decade of war. Before that, there was the Navy's Tailhook scandal, the Army's Aberdeen scandal and another at the Air Force Academy.

"And then I think, you know, we went to war and maybe some of that was masked. And you asked, do I think that there's an effect of 10 years of war? Yeah, instinctively, I do. And we've been looking at what that might be," he said. "You might argue that we've become a little too forgiving because, you know, if a perpetrator shows up at a court martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, there is certainly the risk that we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime. So we're looking for game-changers, really. And some of these congressional proposals could be game-changers. And so we want to make sure that we understand how they fit together and, more importantly, what are the second- and third-order effects?"

Hagel held his first meeting Friday with a congressionally mandated panel of experts on sexual assault, five selected by him, and four selected by Congress.

He urged lawmakers to wait for their recommendations before pushing through any new laws that would shake up the way the military manages criminal justice matters.

But he insisted the Pentagon is taking steps to respond aggressively at the same time, including an order he signed Friday that formalizes an earlier directive requiring the retraining of anyone in the military who works in sexual assault prevention and response programs.

Under the order, the military services will recertify all 25,000 people involved in the programs. The step, which also applies to the military's approximately 19,000 recruiters, must be completed by July 1.

"There will be more of these directives. There will be more action," he said. "But this problem can't be fixed by the secretary of Defense alone. I can direct it. I can hold people accountable, and I will. The president's held me accountable for it. But there's not one of these people in leadership today that wants this to be their legacy."

The Associated Press contributed to this report

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