WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama on Friday gave the military a one-year deadline to better prevent and respond to a wave of sexual assault in the ranks and warned that if progress isn't made, he will consider tougher reforms than those approved by Congress.
The ultimatum from their commander in chief and pressure from lawmakers puts the onus on the Pentagon to live up to its vows of zero tolerance for sexual assault, or face the potential of losing authority to prosecute offenders in its own courts.
"So long as our women and men in uniform face the insider threat of sexual assault, we have an urgent obligation to do more to support victims and hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes, as appropriate under the military justice system," Obama said in a statement issued hours after the Senate sent a bill for his signature that would crack down on the crime.
The president said he wants Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, to report back to him by Dec. 1, 2014, on improvements they've made preventing and responding to sexual assault.
"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 and protect our brave service members who stand guard for us every day at home and around the world," Obama said in the statement, his first comments in response to sexual assault legislation that has been furiously debated on Capitol Hill in recent months.
The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 military members were victims last year.
The sexual assault measures were part of a sweeping, $632.8 billion bill the Senate passed on an 84-15 vote late Thursday that also covers combat pay and other benefits, new ships and aircraft and military bases. The legislation also:
• Provides $552.1 billion for the regular military budget and $80.7 billion for the war in Afghanistan and other overseas operations, a reflection of deficit-driven efforts to trim spending and the drawdown in a conflict lasting more than a decade.
• Gives the administration additional flexibility to move detainees out of the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries. It stops well short of the president's goal of closing the detention facility and bans detainee transfers to the United States.
• Authorizes funds for the destruction of chemical weapons in Syria
• Provides money to study the feasibility of establishing a missile defense site on the East Coast.
The legislation would strip military commanders of their ability to overturn jury convictions, require a civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case and require that any individual convicted of sexual assault face a dishonorable discharge or dismissal. The bill also would provide victims with legal counsel, eliminate the statute of limitations for courts-martial in rape and sexual assault cases, and criminalize retaliation against victims who report a sexual assault. The legislation also would change the military's Article 32 proceedings to limit intrusive questioning of victims, making it more similar to a grand jury.
Obama didn't specify what other reforms he would consider to address sexual assault if the military review doesn't meet his standards. The Senate is still debating a contentious proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take away authority for prosecuting accused attackers from military commanders. The White House says Obama hasn't taken a position on the bill, which has been vigorously opposed by the Pentagon, creating a split within the administration.
Hagel said in a statement shortly after Obama announced his orders that "we share his commitment to doing whatever it takes to solve this problem." Hagel said he is pleased with the changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that were made by Congress and said he's already been making some of the changes required.
"Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of millions of military men and women, a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force, and we will not allow this to stand," Hagel said.
The White House said the president remains open to all ideas for reform but that he supports the thrust of the reforms passed by the Senate in Thursday and wants to give them time to work.
Gillibrand said she spoke with Obama about the matter Thursday but that she remains committed to earning enough support to pass her legislation, which could come up for a vote as early as next month.
"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," she said in a statement. "We have the best fighting force in the world and they deserve a first class justice system. Nowhere in America do we allow a boss to decide if an employee was sexually assaulted or not, except the United States military."
Presidential aides said the White House will be working with the Pentagon to develop a set of benchmarks so that the military's review will be rigorous enough to bring about change. They said the review will include all the efforts underway to address the problem, including training and prevention programs and the way the justice system deters the problem and supports victims.
The Pentagon has ordered a host of reviews and studies across the department and military services. In March, Hagel ordered a review of the military's justice system in connection with sexual assaults. And a month later he laid out a department-wide sexual assault plan to better coordinate the initiatives being launched across the services.
Hagel has been meeting weekly with senior service officers to track the progress of the beefed up training, prevention and treatment programs that the services have put in place over the year. And service members are already taking updated surveys that put increased accountability on commanders to enforce better command climates in their units, including their response to any sexual assault cases.