Sunday, May 12, 2013

Military Guilty as Charged on Sex Abuse Cases

      Many an overworked district attorney might welcome an offer from the federal government to take over prosecuting one of the office’s cases. But Arlington County (Va.) Commonwealth Attorney Theo Stamos was not tempted when she got a call from a Pentagon lawyer offering to handle the sexual assault case against an Air Force colonel who, improbably, happened to be the head of the service’s sexual abuse prevention office.
      “It occurred on an Arlington County street,” Stamos told a reporter for the online news service about the post-midnight May 12 arrest of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski. “Arlington police made the arrest. He was in a civilian capacity at the time. There just didn’t seem like there was any reason to not go forward.”
      Stamos, a veteran prosecutor in her second year as commonwealth attorney in the suburban Washington, D.C., jurisdiction, said she was aware of the simmering controversy over the military’s handling of sexual abuse cases. But she avoided casting aspersions on the Pentagon’s ability to do justice in such cases. “I’m aware of the phenomenon, but it didn’t have any impact in what we are doing,” she explained.
      The timing of Krusinski’s alleged offense — drunkenly groping a woman’s breast and buttocks outside a Crystal City bar barely a mile from the Pentagon — could hardly have been worse for the Pentagon. A few days earlier, the Washington Post had aired the controversy over an Air Force general’s unusual decision to overturn the sexual assault conviction of a captain at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Then, just two days after Krusinski’s arrest, the Pentagon released survey results indicating a one-third increase in the incidence of sexual harassment and abuse among military personnel over the past two years.
      Along with another overturned sexual assault conviction earlier in the year, the news seemed to show that the military command structure simply does not understand the problem or know how to deal with it. The Commander in Chief was among those who were angry. “'The bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this,” Obama said in a May 7 news conference. “If we find out somebody's engaging in this stuff, they've got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”
      Obama added that he wanted victims of sexual abuse in the military to know that “I’ve got their backs.” But the two reports released by the Pentagon earlier that day suggested that many in the military lack confidence in how the military justice system handles such complaints.
      The confidential survey of active duty members found that 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men reported having experienced unwanted sexual contact — defined as anything from unwanted touching to rape. Extrapolating from the total number of active duty personnel — 1.2 million men and 203,000 women — the Pentagon estimated that 26,000 service members in all (12,100 women,13,900 men) at least felt sexually violated over the past year.
      Yet the separate report on actual sexual abuse cases showed only 3,374 complaints in 2012. The figure was up from 3,192 in 2011, but it showed — and the survey confirmed — that many service members consciously decide not to make a complaint. Among the reasons given for not reporting an incident: fear that the complaint would not be kept confidential.
      The report touts steps taken within the past year to increase “victim confidence.” More serious cases now have to be handled by a high-ranking officer with court-martial convening authority. Victims can request expedited transfer from their assigned command or base. Sexual assault specialists and victim advocates are now assigned at the brigade level. And case records will be retained for 50 years.
      The Pentagon is resisting the more fundamental change being advocated in Congress by, among others, two of the Senate’s most prominent female members: California’s Barbara Boxer and New York’s Kristen Gillibrand. The two Democrats are planning to introduce legislation that would have sexual assault cases handled by specially trained prosecutors outside the military’s normal command structure.
      The brand-new secretary of defense, Chuck Hagel, was batting down the suggestion even as he was acknowledging “big problems” in the military’s handling of sexual abuse cases. In the May 7 briefing, Hagel listed more changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice he proposed just last month to limit commanders’ authority to change findings in courts martial and to require written explanations of any changes in sentences. But Hagel insisted that authority over sexual abuse cases “has to remain within the command structure.” Any separate procedures, he said, “would just weaken the system.”
      The evidence to date fails to inspire Hagel’s professed confidence in the military’s existing command structure. The New York Times editorial board listed the military’s sexual abuse scandals of the past two decades: Tailhook (1992), Aberdeen Proving Ground (1996), Air Force Academy (2002), Lackland Air Force Base (2011). Now add Krusinski’s easily satirized arrest for the kind of offense that he was in charge of preventing within the Air Force.
      Krusinski pleaded not guilty and is entitled, of course, to a fair trial. The military command structure has already been tried, however, and been found wanting. Congress and the president are right to consider new procedures for prosecuting sexual abuse cases instead of relying on practices and policies that have failed to effectively combat the problem up to now.


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