Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey emerged from a closed-door meeting with U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas and other members of congress to announce measures aimed at improving the military's response to sexual assault.
Tsongas, Rep. Michael Turner, an Ohio Republican, and Rep. Louise Slaughter, a Democrat from New York, met behind closed doors with Panetta and Dempsey to discuss measures the Department of Defense can take to better prosecute and deal with sexual assaults.
Afterward, Panetta announced that reports of sexual assault will be reviewed by colonels, instead of company commanders, as they have been up until now.
Tsongas said the move means the reviews will no longer be conducted by company commanders who often know and work with both the assailant and the victim, creating potential conflicts of interest.
"The key here is that at the local unit level, these matters are often put aside and not followed up," Panetta said at a press conference. "This requires that any time a complaint is received, it is passed up the chain of command."
Panetta and Dempsey also announced that each branch of the military will establish "special-victim units" trained specifically to investigate sexual assaults, with investigators having training in how to collect evidence in such cases as well as in how to deal with victims.
Such units already exist within the Army, but now all other branches will establish them.
"Our men and women in uniform should not fear their fellow service members," said Turner, who co-chairs the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus with Tsongas.
Tsongas said the meeting was "very productive" and unusual since Panetta and Dempsey requested it.
"They'll often come to the Hill for a hearing when we request it, but they initiated this roundtable discussion, which is highly unusual," Tsongas said in a phone interview last night. "We have a secretary of Defense who is taking this issue very seriously."
Panetta also said he will order that all soldiers be briefed on sexual-assault policies within 14 days of entering active duty.
The announcement of the new initiatives came days after the Pentagon said the number of reported sexual assaults in the U.S. military increased slightly last year and officials were using courts-martial more often to discipline offenders.
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, a 1 percent increase over the previous year. The number of reported cases in 2010 was 3,158 assaults; in 2009, it was 3,230.
The Pentagon has estimated that 86 percent of sexual assaults go unreported.
Tsongas won another recent victory on the issue when President Barack Obama issued an executive order making communications between sexual-assault victims and counselors or legal advisers privileged, similar to the way communications between attorneys and clients are privileged.
Tsongas also sponsored the Defense Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight and Good Governance Act, which was signed into law earlier this year, ensuring that sexual-assault victims have access to military lawyers, granting victims the right to transfer to another unit within the military so they do not have to serve alongside their attackers, and increasing training and record-keeping regarding sexual assaults.
Material from the Associated Press was used in this report.