AP NEWS

Congress must act on sex assaults

May 13, 2019

The newest report on sexual assault in the military shows more service members report being victimized. Translated: Pentagon efforts to eliminate this scourge are not making headway.

This newspaper’s 2011 series “Twice Betrayed” — and reporting by this newspaper and others of abuse scandals, including at recruit training at Lackland — revealed rampant sexual assault in the military. Since then the military has instituted reforms. But it’s clear these are not enough. The culture that allows such behavior to occur is apparently still flourishing. Although men are also victimized, the vast majority are servicewomen.

The Defense Department’s report, done biannually, revealed that 6.2 percent of female service members between the ages of 17 and 24 reported being attacked. That’s up from 4.3 percent in 2016. That means 13,000 service women reported some sort of sexual contact or “penetrative assault.” Women make up about 20 percent of the armed forces.

And in one indication that the culture that abets this behavior lingers, the figures also show that only 38 percent of women victims, and 17 percent of men, report their assault.

Among active-duty women, 1 in 4 reported sexual harassment, as did 6.3 percent of active-duty men. Sexual harassment and assault are linked. The harassment is an indication that the culture that discourages reporting is at work.

And here’s what else is part of the culture: Commanders still have authority over prosecutions in the case of sexual assaults. The newspaper’s series found a widespread reluctance for commanders to act — and, too often, allowing or turning a blind eye toward retaliation against those who report. Retaliation is now a crime because of past reforms, and, still, 1 in 5 women reporting assault said they were also victims of retaliation.

Something is seriously askew here. All the more reason to take the authority to prosecute out of commanders’ hands. These decisions must be made by professional prosecutors, those steeped in the law. That is a logical next step — one that must be imposed by Congress because the military is opposed.

Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan, acknowledging failure, directed the Pentagon to develop tools for a plan to be presented by Sept. 30. Those plans must also explore why trials for reported offenses remain relatively rare.

Congress has given the Defense Department ample time to address all these problems. This latest report reveals that for whatever reason, the Pentagon is faltering. Civilian oversight of the military is one of the strengths of our form of government. It must be more fully exercised when it comes to sexual assault in the military.