President Obama on Friday told Pentagon leaders to he wants a "full scale review" in less than a year on the steps the military has taken to reduce sexual assaults in the military ranks.
"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 a statement.
Obama's marching orders to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey come as he prepares to sign a major defense bill passed on Thursday by the Senate.
Provisions in the National Defense Authorization Act would strip 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.
In a response to Obama's directive, Hagel on Friday said the DoD would build on the "significant progress we've made this year."
"As I and all the leaders of this institution have said, 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.
Not included in the legislation is a provision championed by Sens. Kristen Gillibrand, D-NY, and other lawmakers that would take the decision to prosecute a suspect in a sexual assault out of the hands of the commander, leaving it to a military prosecutor.
That provision was pulled over the summer by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., in a move that victim advocates were quick to criticize as a surrender to Pentagon brass.
Kate O'Gorman, political director for Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, said the group still wants to see Gillibrand's legislation adopted. That bill would give to military prosecutors the decision to prosecute a suspect alleged to have committed sexual assault, and not leave it up to the commander.
The Senate is expected to consider the legislation again when it returns in January.
But O'Gorman said IAVA is glad "to see the President continuing to lead on this" by ordering up a progress report by next December 1.
"By setting this marker down he's saying that this isn't an issue that's going away at the end of 2013, and that the military has to be committed to fighting until the numbers drop significantly," she said. Should the issue fall out of the public eye over the next year, she said the year-end report that Obama ordered "will keep the fight going."
Obama said on Friday that since directing Hagel and Dempsey earlier in the year to "step up their game" to prevent and respond to rapes and sexual assaults that the services have moved ahead with a broad range of initiatives.
These include reforms to the military justice system, improving and expanding prevention programs, and enhancing support for victims, he said.
Obama conceded that more has to be done, and credited Congress for the provisions in the latest legislation.
"The White House and the Department of Defense and other relevant agencies in my administration will continue to work with Congress to address this corrosive problem," he said.
-- Associated Press contributed to this report.
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