Amid congressional and legal pressure on the Pentagon to fight harder against sexual assault in the ranks, the Defense Department signaled Friday that changes are on the way.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta will issue "very direct guidance" in the coming months, Pentagon spokesman George Little said.
"He wants to see action taken," Little said, announcing the secretary's concerns at the start of his daily question session with journalists. "Sexual assault is not tolerable."
Little would not fully explain why he chose to voice Panetta's concerns now, but said he was aware that U.S. Rep. Jackie Speier had held a news conference Thursday describing legislation she has introduced to change how the military responds to rape.
"Comments from the Hill, court cases, issues that he is aware of from inside the (armed) services -- it's a range," Little said. "Not any one thing is driving his concern on this."
Speier, D-California, was sharply critical of the Defense Department on Thursday.
"For too long the military's response to rape victims has been: 'Take an aspirin and go to bed,'" Speier said. "We owe our brave women and men in the military a justice system that protects them, not punishes them when they become victims of sexual assaults and rape committed by other service members."
Her Sexual Assault Training Oversight and Prevention Act, or STOP, would set up a new office outside the military chain of command. Military and civilian experts would investigate reports and handle victim care in military sexual assault cases. The congresswoman said that a Defense Department survey last year found that only a small percentage of more than 19,000 rapes and sexual assaults involving service members was reported and that only 13.5% were filed, with only 8% of reports resulting in prosecution.
Meanwhile, there were arguments Thursday in U.S. District Court in Alexandria, Virginia, concerning a lawsuit filed by 28 current and former military personnel who say they were assaulted while on duty. The judge is expected to rule soon on whether that case, Cioca v. Rumsfeld, will move ahead
Little said Panetta had a zero-tolerance for sexual assault at the CIA, where he served as director before joining the Pentagon.
Panetta "believes it is no longer acceptable that we say 'we can just do better' on this, that we need to take action," Little said. "So I think in the coming months you'll see him issue very direct guidance to the department on this very important issue and problem."