WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama on Friday gave the military one year to make progress on an epidemic of sexual assault or face potential tougher reforms, hours after Congress sent a sweeping defense bill for his signature that cracks down on the crime in its ranks.
Obama said the military has "an urgent obligation" to support victims and punish perpetrators as he directed military leaders to review their efforts to prevent and respond to the crime, including improvements to the military justice system. He said he wants Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to report back to him by Dec. 1, 2014.
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"If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks and protect our brave service members who stand guard for us every day at home and around the world," Obama said in a statement provided to The Associated Press.
Obama didn't specify what other reforms he would consider in the statement, his first remarks in response to the sexual assault legislation. The Senate is still debating a contentious proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take away authority for prosecuting accused attackers from military commanders. The White House says Obama hasn't taken a position on the bill and remains open to all ideas for reform but that he supports the thrust of the reforms passed by the Senate in late-night session Thursday and wants to give them time to work.
The Senate voted 84-15 for the $632.8 billion bill that covers combat pay, new ships, aircraft and military bases. Drawing the greatest attention were the provisions cracking down on perpetrators of sexual assault and rape.
The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 members of the military may have been sexually assaulted last year, though thousands were afraid to come forward for fear of inaction or retribution. The scandal united Democrats and Republicans, House and Senate in a concerted effort to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice, with Senate women leading the fight.
"Today represents a huge win for victims of sexual assault, and for justice in America's armed forces, but this is no finish line," said Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., one of seven women on the Armed Services Committee who pushed for the changes. "In the months and years ahead, vigilance will be required to ensure that these historic reforms are implemented forcefully and effectively."
The legislation would strip military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and require that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal. The bill also would provide victims with legal counsel, eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases, and criminalize retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault. The legislation also would change the military's Article 32 proceedings to limit intrusive questioning of victims, making it more similar to a grand jury.
Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said the legislation "will help encourage victims to come forward to seek justice, and it will help ensure that perpetrators are held accountable for their crimes."
The sexual assault provisions are part of a larger measure that would also provide $552.1 billion for the regular military budget and $80.7 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations, a reflection of deficit-driven efforts to trim spending and the drawdown in a conflict lasting more than a decade.
The bill would give Obama additional flexibility to move detainees out of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries, but it stops well short of the administration's goal of closing the detention facility and bans detainee transfers to the United States.
The legislation also would cover combat pay and other benefits, authorize funds for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria and provide money to study the feasibility of establishing a missile defense site on the East Coast.
The sexual assault measures came after a contentious hearing earlier this year, when senators dressed down senior military leaders and insisted that sexual assault in the military had cost the services the trust and respect of the American people as well as the nation's men and women in uniform.
Dempsey and the beribboned four-star chiefs of the service branches conceded in an extraordinary hearing in June that they had faltered in dealing with sexual assault. One said assaults were "like a cancer" in the military.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, especially Gillibrand and McCaskill, grilled the chiefs about whether the military's mostly male leadership understands differences between relatively minor sexual offenses and serious crimes that deserve swift and decisive justice.
"Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together," Gillibrand said.
In his statement Friday, Obama called sexual assault in the military a "corrosive problem, which is a violation of the values our armed forces stand for, destroys trust among our troops, and undermines our readiness."
"As commander in chief, I've made it clear that these crimes have no place in the greatest military on earth," Obama said. "Since then, our armed forces have moved ahead with a broad range of initiatives, including reforms to the military justice system, improving and expanding prevention programs, and enhancing support for victims. Yet, so long as our women and men in uniform face the insider threat of sexual assault, we have an urgent obligation to do more to support victims and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes, as appropriate under the military justice system."
Presidential aides said the White House will be working with the Pentagon to develop a set of benchmarks so that the military's review will be rigorous enough to bring about change. They said the review will include all the efforts under way to address the problem, including training and prevention programs and the way the justice system deters the problem and supports victims.