WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said on Thursday the Pentagon had made “real progress” in combating sexual assault in the U.S. military but needed to take further action to ensure victims were not subjected to retaliation when they reported the crime.
Releasing preliminary findings from the Defense Department’s annual report on military sexual assault, Hagel said the Pentagon’s three-year crackdown on sex crimes was “beginning to have an impact.”
An anonymous biennial survey released with the department’s report to President Barack Obama showed a drop of more than 25 percent in total cases of unwanted sexual contact over the past two years, to 19,000 cases in 2014 compared with 26,000 in 2012.
The total number of sexual assaults actually reported to authorities by U.S. troops rose 8 percent to 5,983, compared with 5,518 the previous year. Officials said the figures showed military personnel were becoming more confident about filing complaints over sexual assault, which is widely underreported.
But Hagel said more than 60 percent of women who reported a sexual assault in 2014 “perceived some kind of retaliation, often in the form of social retaliation by co-workers or peers.”
The findings drew mixed reaction from lawmakers in Congress. Senator Claire McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, said the figures showed a positive trend, with fewer total incidents and higher reporting by victims. But she added, “We have to do more on retaliation.”
Representative Jackie Speier, who has sought more aggressive reform, said the 2014 data showed “a hostile culture for survivors remains the rule, not the exception.” She and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand vowed to continue pushing legislation removing sexual assault prosecutions from the military chain of command and placing them in the hands of independent attorneys.
The Pentagon began a crackdown on military sexual assault three years ago after a spate of high-profile incidents sparked public outrage and demands for action by the president and Congress.
Hagel told reporters that “overall, the data shows that while there have been indications of real progress, measurable progress, over the last two years ... we still have a long way to go.”
The Pentagon chief unveiled four new initiatives to combat sexual assault, including an effort to “prevent professional and social retaliation.”
“We must tackle this difficult problem head on, because, like sexual assault itself, reprisal directly contradicts one of the highest values of our military, that we protect our brothers and sisters in uniform.”
Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle in Washington; editing by Doina Chiacu and Matthew Lewis