WASHINGTON President Barack Obama ordered U.S. military leaders on Friday to conduct a one-year review of efforts to eliminate sexual assaults in the armed forces and toughen the response to such cases.
He acted in response to a spate of embarrassing sex-related incidents in the military that provoked strong calls for reform and a Pentagon report showing a 37 percent jump in the estimated number of cases of unwanted sexual contact last year.
"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," Obama said in a statement.
The U.S. Senate approved its annual defense policy bill late on Thursday. It included more than 30 provisions aimed at overhauling the military's response to sex crimes, giving greater support to victims and reforming the military justice code to enable a tougher response to the crimes.
But some members of the U.S. Congress, led by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, have been attempting to go further by stripping commanders of their power to decide whether serious criminal charges from sexual assault cases should go to trial.
Gillibrand said on Friday she appreciated Obama's commitment to solving the sexual assault problem, but would keep working to win enough votes for the "fundamental" change she has been seeking.
"I do not want to wait another year to enact the one reform survivors have asked for in removing commanders with no legal training and conflicts of interest from the decision of whether or not to prosecute a rape or sexual assault," Gillibrand said in a statement.
Obama said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, had been instructed to continue their efforts to make improvements on sexual assault prevention and response including to the military justice system.
"I have also directed that they report back to me, with a full-scale review of their progress, by December 1, 2014," Obama said.
Hagel said Pentagon commanders were committed to implementing "effectively and without delay" the reforms in the defense bill.
"We welcome President Obama's continued leadership on this issue, and we share his commitment to doing whatever it takes to solve this problem," he said in a statement after Obama issued his directive.
(Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, David Alexander and Missy Ryan; Editing by Paul Simao)