WASHINGTON – Pentagon officials are offering a set of recommendations that they say should help prevent sexual assaults within the military and offer treatment guidelines for victims.
A task force reported its recommendations to Senate Armed Services Committee members on Thursday night. The group recommends that the Pentagon (search) establish a policy office that reports directly to the secretary of defense and is a single point of accountability for investigations and assistance to victims. It also suggests that an office be established to develop department-wide standards and guidelines to improve incident reporting and response.
Other action items include setting aside time at the upcoming combatant commanders' conference to discuss the issues; convening a "council of experts" from the Defense, Justice and Veterans Affairs (search) Departments; and holding a summit in the next 90 days between civilian and military officials that would define sexual assault, address privacy and confidentiality concerns of victims, develop a more effective response capability, hold accountable any assailants, including allied soldiers, and "increase visibility on how cases are resolved the way they are."
The task force encourages the Pentagon to find the money to develop the office, make available quality criminal incident reporting data and establish a framework to review whether the policies work.
Officials admit that among the most difficult issues to address is establishing a definition and getting out information on what sexual assault is.
The department has never come up with its own workable definition of the term "sexual assault" and one still isn't in place, acknowledged Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness David S.C. Chu and Task Force Director Ellen P. Embrey, who briefed reporters Thursday on the contents of the report.
"We haven't come up with a definition we all agree to," Embrey said. "We used our own definition for the task force," which included in the term sexual assault all occurrences of rape, attempted rape, sodomy, attempted sodomy and indecent assault.
"A majority of people didn't know what sexual assault is," Embrey added, referring to the subjects interviewed by the task force.
Part of the problem in reporting sexual assaults over the last couple of years has been that commanders and even some victims have had trouble discerning between sexual assault and sexual harassment, meaning reports of criminal activity probably weren't made in instances where they should have been, and some victims may not have received adequate physical and mental treatment following an assault, the officials said.
A clearer definition probably won't come up until the combatant commanders' conference scheduled for later this month.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld appointed the task force in February after a deluge of reports about sexual assaults in U.S. Central Command's (search) operating area, most specifically Iraq and Kuwait.
While department officials said they have cut the number of reported sexual assaults in half since the mid-1990s, they still face a significant number of incidents. Reports in early February indicated that some 34 to 112 sexual assault investigations were under way in Iraq and Kuwait alone.
Citing 2002 and 2003 data, Embry said Central Command experienced 24 reported cases of sexual assault in its operating area in 2002, but that number jumped to 94 in 2003. Deployment of a large number of U.S. forces to the region for the Iraq conflict is to be taken into account for the increase. Chu insisted that the jump, though seemingly large, was "consistent with the force structure in the area."
The officials acknowledged that several problems need to be resolved if the rate of sexual assault in the military is to be reduced any further. The task force found that current policies and programs do not address sexual assault, victims are not told where or how to get help and have had to take the initiative on their own to receive any sort of assistance.
The task force found that victim advocates (search) can make a big difference, but only the Navy and Marines have them, and they don't have enough. It also reported that commanders are becoming more interested in holding offenders accountable, though they have not been trained to deal with specific needs of sexual assault victims.
Fox News' Bret Bair and Ian McCaleb contributed to this report.