DISTRICT OF COLUMBIA - Earlier this year, an investigation by the Associated Press revealed a disturbing sexual assault problem on some of the nation’s military bases around the world. Since the initial story broke, it seems the problem is worse than originally thought and Congress wants answers and changes, something that the Pentagon is fighting against.
Since the story broke in March, the AP has found that there are now nearly 700 cases over the last 10 years of child-on-child sexual assault, occurring on military bases or at military-run schools. The investigation found that despite the fact that the vast majority of these cases were found to be credible, very few were ever pursued by prosecutors, leavings offenders without rehabilitation and victims without justice.
Now, Congress wants answers. In a rare show of bipartisanship, members of both the House and Senate Armed Services Committees have sent letters to the Defense and Justice Departments demanding that each department’s inspector general initiate investigations as well as Congress’ own watchdog, the GAO.
“The report reveals an inscrutable system that fails these children at every level,” wrote Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the Senate Education Committee. “As a mother and grandmother, I cannot tolerate the thought that our military children are not receiving the protection and support they deserve.”
Murray is demanding answers specific to activities that take place at military-run schools. “I trust you share my outrage,” she added.
In a letter addressed to Defense Secretary Mattis, Senators McCain (R-AZ) and Reed (D-RI) requested that the department’s inspector general conduct a “comprehensive assessment” into the handling of sexual assault cases involving children on all military installations and in military-run schools.
“It disturbs us to learn that the department’s policies and procedures may prevent efforts to help child victims of misconduct ... and to rehabilitate and hold child offenders accountable,” the senators wrote.
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand addressed the Justice Department’s inspector general, demanding to know how many of these cases have not been prosecuted and why the majority have been ignored.
Rep. Jackie Speier of California and Rep. Mac Thornberry of Texas, reached out to the Pentagon for information and say that plans are in the works to hold public hearings in the coming months. Requests were made in regards to the way the military handles reports of other types of child abuse as well.
“You cannot have an environment in which children aren’t protected, regardless of whether they’re on a base or in a public school classroom. So we’ve got to change the law,” Speier said in an interview with AP.
Inspector general offices are independent within each agency and are not obligated to honor any informal request made by Congress through their respective department secretaries; however, it’s rare that these requests are refused.
Likewise, the GAO is not required to take action based on a request from Congress, but Chuck Young, Spokesman for the office said it was “likely” that the GAO would investigate. Preliminary findings from the GAO were requested by February 1, 2019.
However, the Pentagon has refused the request of an IG’s investigation in favor of the Defense department investigating itself, prompting questions of obstruction. It’s also the latest example of the military trying to limit congressional oversight.
“Smart, with-it secretaries, they cooperated,” said Gordon Heddell, Pentagon Inspector General from 208 through 2011. He continued saying he could not recall a secretary ever refusing to honor a request for an IG investigation because it was “better to have a black eye than run the risk of being accused of obstruction.”
Military officials are not happy with all the attention coming from Congress. They began trying to limit any involvement of lawmakers when the AP began their investigation last fall (before they say they knew the extent of the problem) in anticipation of the negative publicity that would result, giving the impression of a cover up.
The message that Pentagon officials are sending to their staff, lawmakers, and the public is clear and one that screams damage control: “Thanks, but we will handle this internally. We don’t want your help.”
Sen. Joni Ernst, an Army National Guard veteran and Iowa Republican, said of her meeting with Pentagon school officials, “I think they would like to make the corrections ... because, simply, they can do it faster than Congress can.” But she went on to say that while she supported internal reforms, she may still back legislation aimed at fixing the problem.
Another staffer, who spoke to the AP on the condition of anonymity because he wasn’t authorized to speak publically said, “They did not want any legislative action on this.” The staffer said he thought legislation would be required.
There are at least four legislative fixes currently making their way around Capitol Hill. Perhaps the most promising is an amendment to the Fiscal Year 2019 National Defense Authorization Act, introduced by Senators John Cornyn (R-TX) and Angus King (I-ME). It would close the loophole that currently exists that prevents cases from being transferred to local jurisdictions and provide congressional oversight to ensure that these cases are pursued. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) is also a co-sponsor of the legislation.
The NDAA, which passed the Senate Armed Services Committee last month, directly ordered an IG investigation as part of legislation to overhaul the handling of these cases. This would be in addition to the GAO investigation, and the NDAA mandates that the IG’s report be received by December 1.