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Hagel outlines plan to reduce, respond to sexual assault cases

By Tom Watkins, CNN
updated 4:20 PM EDT, Thu August 15, 2013
Military leaders testify before the Senate Armed Services Cmte. on a bill regarding sexual assaults in the military on June 4, 2013.
Military leaders testify before the Senate Armed Services Cmte. on a bill regarding sexual assaults in the military on June 4, 2013.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A victim's advocacy program is among the directives issued by the secretary of defense
  • The accused will be able to be reassigned or transferred
  • The policies must be standardized across all branches
  • Obama's remarks in May were criticized as potentially affecting the right to a fair trial

(CNN) -- Responding to an increase in reports of sexual assault within the military, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Thursday issued a series of initiatives intended to mitigate the problem, including allowing accusers to be reassigned or transferred.

A number of high-profile incidents have involved officers in the Air Force and the Army, as well as midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.

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In a two-page memo, Hagel directs:

-- that the secretaries of the military departments establish by November 1 a victim's advocacy program to give accusers legal advice and representation throughout the justice process;

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-- that a proposal be delivered to Hagel by October 15 to amend the manual for courts-martial so victims can make recommendations on what the penalty should be;

-- that the secretaries of the military departments develop policies by January 1 allowing those accused in a sexual assault case to be reassigned or transferred;

-- that policies prohibiting inappropriate relations between trainers and trainees, and recruiters and recruits, be standardized across all services by November 1;

-- that the under secretary of defense for personnel and readiness develop by November 1 a policy requiring status reports of allegations and actions be taken to the first general/flag officer within the chain of command, "without delaying reporting to the relevant military criminal investigation organization";

-- that secretaries of the military departments mandate by December 1 that judge advocates serve as investigating officers for preliminary hearings on sexual assault charges.

-- that the Defense Department's inspector general evaluate closed investigations on a routine basis.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, called the action "a good thing," but predicted it would not solve the problem. "As we have heard over and over again from the victims, and the top military leadership themselves, there is a lack of trust in the system that has a chilling effect on reporting," she said in a written statement.

She lambasted the military's record -- 302 prosecutions out of an estimated 26,000 cases -- as insufficient. "It is time for Congress to seize the opportunity, listen to the victims and create an independent, objective and non-biased military justice system worthy of our brave men and women's service."

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Thursday's directive comes nine days after Hagel issued another memo -- required reading by all military officers and enlistees -- in an apparent effort to clarify comments made last spring by President Barack Obama on pursuing military sexual assault convictions.

"Each military justice case must be resolved on its own facts," Hagel writes in the one-page memo, which was obtained by CNN's Chris Lawrence and titled "Integrity of the Military Justice Process."

"Those who exercise discretionary authority in the military justice process must exercise their independent judgment, consistent with applicable law and regulation," it continues. "There are no expected or required dispositions, outcomes, or sentences in any military justice case, other than what result from the individual facts and merits of a case and the application to the case of the fundamentals of due process of law."

The tone of the memo contrasts with that of Obama's comments at a White House news conference in May, when he addressed the issue of sexual assault in the military.

"When you engage in this kind of behavior, that's not patriotic -- it's a crime," Obama told reporters. Those in the military who engage in sexual assault should be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It's not acceptable," he continued.

Critics described Obama's remarks as unlawful command influence, potentially affecting the right to a fair trial for accused members of the military.

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CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report

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