(AP) 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 authority level of Army colonel or Navy captain.
"Sexual assault has no place in the military. It is a violation of everything that the U.S. military stands for," Panetta told a Capitol Hill news conference after a closed-door meeting with members of the House Armed Services Committee who have pushed for the Pentagon to take aggressive steps to stop sexual assaults.
The Pentagon said Friday that the number of reported sexual assaults had increased slightly last year, with 3,192 cases involving service members as either victims or perpetrators. But the Defense Department also has estimated that 86 percent of sexual assaults go unreported, a reflection of the fear some have for the prosecutorial system or their own standing in the service.
Panetta said that as Pentagon chief he would issue a directive changing the way cases are handled. A higher authority within the military now will review the most serious cases, ensuring that cases remain within the chain of the command and leaders are held responsible.
He said he would work with Congress on legislation implementing several other initiatives, including creation of special victims units within the services, allowing National Guard and reserve members to remain on active duty after they file a complaint 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 House Armed Services panel will be crafting beginning next week.
"This is a strong package. It is essential, we believe, to being able to prevent and respond to the crime of sexual assault," Panetta said. "There's no silver bullet when it comes to this issue. But what is required is that everyone, from the secretary to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs all the way down, every command level, be sensitive to this issue, be aware that they bear the responsibility to take action on these cases. The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders."
Panetta, who was joined by Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, mentioned the steps the Pentagon has taken previously, including the creation of a 24/7 hotline and the selection of a two-star general to head the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
"Our men and women in uniform should not fear their fellow service members," Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, told reporters at the news conference. Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., talked of a "renewed commitment to address this grievous issue." Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., focused on treating victims with respect.
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 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.