Under Pressure

11.19.11

Will the Military Finally Confront its Rape Epidemic?

A radical new bill gathers momentum in Congress, a critical case has a surprisingly good day in court, and the secretary of defense announces he'll tackle the issue of sexual assault within his ranks. Jesse Ellison on whether the military will finally address its no-longer-so-secret shame.

The mounting pressure on the military to confront what’s been deemed an “epidemic” of rape and sexual assault within its ranks hit a new stride this week, with three separate developments—stemming from three different sources—coming to a head in the nation’s capital.  

The core issue is by now well documented: female soldiers are today more likely to be raped by a fellow soldier than they are to be killed in combat. In 2010, there were 3,158 military sexual assaults reported, according to the Department of Defense’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office. But that number, by the Pentagon’s own admission, represents just a fraction of the actual problem, accounting for just 13.5 percent of the estimated 19,000 assaults that actually occurred last year. Survivors say that the assaults themselves are just the tip of the iceberg: more damaging is the way they’re handled. Victims who report their assaults report being further victimized by the military’s handling of their complaints. Ninety percent of them are eventually involuntarily discharged.

Indeed, it’s the way the top brass has responded—or failed to respond—to the issue that provided much of the impetus for this week’s events. On Thursday, Congresswoman Jackie Speier, a Democrat from Northern California’s San Mateo County, held a press conference to announce the introduction of a new bill strengthening protections for victims of sexual assault within the military. The legislation would establish a registry of military sex offenders that would be accessible to the Department of Justice and establish a separate office to handle the oversight and investigation of sexual-assault claims. Dozens of survivors joined Speier for the announcement, giving voice to the dizzying barrage of statistics above.

The following day, many of these same survivors went to federal court in Alexandria, Virginia, to attend the first hearing in Cioca v. Rumsfeld, a landmark case filed by attorney Susan L. Burke in February on behalf of 28 plaintiffs who allege that they were victims of sexual assault during their time in the armed forces, and charging former defense secretaries Robert Gates and Donald Rumsfeld with failing not only to take action on the problem but also ignoring congressional mandates. Together, they allege, it amounts to a violation of their constitutional rights.

From afar, both Burke and Speier’s efforts seemed like long shots, at best. To succeed in Cioca v. Rumsfeld, Burke would have to convince Justice Liam O’Grady, the federal judge hearing the case, to find a way around a well-established 1950 Supreme Court decision preventing active-duty servicemembers from filing lawsuits against government officials for any injury sustained during the course of their service. And the Speier’s bill, which removes oversight of sexual assaults from the standard military chain of command, is by far the most radical of a slew of pieces of legislation introduced in recent months. Both initiatives fly in the face of a military culture loathe to give up oversight over anything that happens within its ranks, and even more averse to civilian questions about leadership decisions.

But within 24 hours, the Speier’s bill had more than 50 cosponsors, dozens more than any of the other, less radical, propositions targeting the same problem. (By way of reference, only 9 percent of all pieces of legislation ever get more than 40 cosponsors, much less within the first day.) And a letter petitioning Congress and the Joint Chiefs of Staff to allow military sexual assaults to be handled outside of the normal chain of command had garnered 3,000 signatures.

Meanwhile, within the walls of the wood-paneled federal courtroom, Burke’s battle showed similarly unexpected promise, with Justice O’Grady declining to grant the motion to dismiss, filed by Department of Justice attorneys on behalf of the Department of Defense, and shaking his head with apparent empathy as Burke detailed how some of her plaintiffs had been “forced to live alongside their rapists, forced to salute their rapists every day.”

But O’Grady didn’t dismiss the defense attorney’s motion either—instead, he stalled. “How do I get around what I believe is a clear mandate [from the Supreme Court] to not involve the court in what clearly are military oversight issues,” he asked Burke. “You understand my problem here?”

“I do, your honor,” Burke responded. “I understand that this is rocky terrain. But rape and sexual assault are not incident to service. It’s nothing you should sign up for. I urge you to give it serious thought.” O’Grady pledged to do just that, promising to deliver his judgment as soon as he could—likely within a few weeks, Burke estimated—but acknowledging that it wouldn’t be “a pleasant task.”

With laptops and cell phones prohibited inside the federal court, it was only later that plaintiffs and attorneys would learn that that very morning, Leon Panetta, who took over from Robert Gates as secretary of defense just this past July, had announced that he would be issuing a new set of policies toward military sexual assaults. "He's tired of 'we can do better' answers and wants to actually take action," Pentagon spokesman George Little told The Daily Beast. "He's the kind of leader who sees the problem and wants to fix it."

The timing can’t go unnoted: the current news cycle has been dominated by news out of Penn State, and outrage over the fact that officials there had seemingly done nothing to stop a alleged sexual predator. This week, in other words, is not the week to deny accountability. But while Panetta’s pledge was welcomed, it was also met with a degree of wariness. “Obviously the Department of Defense is feeling pressure from many directions, including Congress, veterans, members of the military, support groups and the public,” Representative Speier said in a statement. “I look forward to hearing details about the ‘very direct guidance’ from the Secretary. We want to see actions, not promises.”