WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama on Friday gave the military a one-year deadline to better prevent and respond to a wave of sexual assaults 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 put 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, the 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.
The Pentagon estimates 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 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.