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Politics

Defense Chief Orders Review of Military Sex Assault Programs

January 24, 2021

WASHINGTON  — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in his first directive since taking office, has given his senior leaders two weeks to send him reports on sexual assault prevention programs in the military, and an assessment of what has worked and what hasn't.

Austin's memo, which went out Saturday, fulfills a commitment he made to senators last week during confirmation hearings. He had vowed to immediately address the problems of sexual assault and harassment in the ranks.

"This is a leadership issue," Austin said in his two-page memo. "We will lead."

Senator after senator demanded to know what Austin planned to do about the problem, which defense and military leaders have grappled with for years. Reports of sexual assaults have steadily gone up since 2006, according to department reports, including a 13% jump in 2018 and a 3% increase in 2019. The 2020 data is not yet available.

The 2018 increase fueled congressional anger over the issue, and lawmakers have repeatedly called for action, including changes in the Code of Military Justice.

"You do agree that we can't keep doing the same thing that we've been doing for the past decade?" Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said during Austin's confirmation hearing. "Do I have your commitment to be relentless on this issue until we can end the scourge of sexual violence in the military?"

Austin agreed, telling senators, "This starts with me and you can count on me getting after this on Day One."

Technically, the directive came on Day Two. Austin arrived at the Pentagon on Friday shortly after noon, but he spent his first hours as defense chief in meetings with key leaders as he began the transition to his new job. He was in the Pentagon again Saturday, making calls to defense counterparts around the world, and he signed the memo.

In his hearing and in the memo, Austin acknowledged that the military has long struggled with the problem, but must do better.

The directive calls for each leader to submit a summary of the sexual assault and harassment measures they have taken in the last year that show promise, and an assessment of those that didn't. And he asked for relevant data for the past decade, including efforts to support victims. 

"Include in your report the consideration of novel approaches to any of these areas," he said, adding that "we must not be afraid to get creative."

And Austin said he plans to host a meeting on the matter with senior leaders in the coming days. 

Nate Galbreath, the acting director of the Pentagon's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said last April that he was cautiously optimistic that the lower increase in 2019 suggested a trend in declining assaults. But he said it's too difficult to tell because sexual assaults are vastly under-reported.

Galbreath and military service leaders have repeatedly rolled out new programs over the years, including increased education and training and efforts to encourage service members to intervene when they see a bad situation. Last year officials announced a new move to root out serial offenders.

Many victims don't file criminal reports, which means investigators can't pursue those alleged attackers. Under the new system, victims who don't want to file a public criminal report are encouraged to confidentially provide details about their alleged attacker so that investigators can see if they have been involved in other crimes.

Galbreath and others also have contended that, at least early on, the increase in reports was a good sign in that it showed that victims were more willing to come forward, suggesting they were getting more confident in the justice system.

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