WASHINGTON (AP) — President Barack 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.