WASHINGTON - President 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.
"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.