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Secretary Panetta Remarks on Capitol Hill

Presenter: Secretary of Defense Leon E. Panetta
April 17, 2012

[Go to http://www.defense.gov/news/DoDSexualAssault.pdf to view DoD Sexual Assault Initiatives associated with this transcript.]              

               SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON E. PANETTA:  Thank you very much, and I want to express to you the same, to members of Congress that joined with us to discuss this issue.  They have for a long time been leaders on this issue here in Congress.  We wanted to meet with them, to brief them on the steps that we wanted to take and to work with them to ensure that legislation that we need is incorporated in the authorization bill so that we can move forward on what General Dempsey and I consider to be a serious problem that needs to be decided at the Department of Defense and the United States military. 

            Sexual assault has no place in the military.  It is a violation of everything that the U.S. military stands for.  General Dempsey and I have, I think, made it a point to try to open up the military to everyone who wants to serve this country, and the problem is that sexual assault remains a disincentive for many to become a part of the United States military.  We’ve got to deal with that and we will. 

            We have taken some steps in the past to try to begin to deal with this problem.  We have put forward a number of initiatives.  And let me just summarize some of the past issues that we’ve done.  We’ve assigned a two-star general as the director of the sexual assault prevention and response office to try to highlight the importance of dealing with this issue and increase the command authority in dealing with this issue. 

            We’ve implemented a number of new policies that expand legal assistance, that expedite transfers for those that want to move from units, and that also provide extended document retention, something that was not the case in the past.  We also have stood up a DoD-wide 24/7 anonymous hotline to be able to encourage victims to report.  And in addition to that we’ve now activated an integrated database that contains all the information with regards to sexual assault. 

            We need to do more and I’ve made a commitment that we will move forward to incorporate some of the ideas that have been suggested by members of Congress into additional steps here.  We believe that we’ve developed a set of initiatives that fundamentally change the way the department deals with this problem.  Let me summarize some of the steps that we’re recommending and that we will work with Congress in trying to include in our legislative package.  

            First of all, as of the next few days what I will do is change the way these cases are handled in the military.  I intend to enter a directive as secretary of defense that will elevate the disposition of sexual assault cases so that at a minimum these cases are disposed of at a special court martial level.  That means that the local unit commander is required to report these cases, any sexual assault case, is required to report that to a special court martial level, generally a colonel status, or if necessary to a general court martial level for investigation into the matter to be handled. 

            And the key here is that at the local unit level sometimes these matters are put aside, they’re not followed up with.  This requires that any time a complaint is received that it is referred up the chain of command for action.  It ensures that we emphasize the role of the chain of command and that we continue to emphasize that all commanders have to exercise good discipline, take control, and they need to understand that everyone has responsibility to deal with these issues.  But most importantly we are assured that at a higher command level we will have action taken with regards to the complaints that have been made.  

            Secondly, to be able to effectively investigate and prosecute these sexual assault cases it requires a particular expertise in gathering the evidence.  We are creating a special victims unit or capability within each of the services to be able to do this.  This will ensure that we have highly trained experts who are trained in evidence collection, the best way to interview survivors of the sexual assault, and who have – (inaudible) – offender behavior in being able to determine what those behaviors are like. 

            We also want to ensure that members of the National Guard and Reserve who file complaints are able to remain on active duty once they’ve filed those complaints in order to ensure that their sexual assault complaint is handled.  At the present time, those in the Guard and Reserve, if they’re on active duty and make a complaint, they then are moved into their National Guard or Reserve status and they lose the ability to continue that kind of prosecution of their complaint.  What we’re doing is requiring that they be able to stay on active duty in order to ensure that the case is continuing to be handled.  

            And fourthly, we have to do everything we can to train and educate the force with regards to these issues.  We’re going to focus on the newest members, new arrivals, and require that DoD sexual assault policy be explained and briefed to them within 14 days of entering active duty.  

            Secondly, we also want a mandate that information on sexual assault source such as the DoD self-help line and other things are widely publicized so that members are aware of what’s available to them.  And thirdly, we are looking to require commanders to conduct annual climate assessment analysis with regards to sexual assault, something that isn’t required at the present time. 

            This is a strong package – (inaudible) – essential to being able to prevent and respond to the crime of sexual assault.  There’s no silver bullet when it comes to this issue, but what is required is that everyone from the secretary to the chairman of the joint chiefs all the way down at every command level be sensitive to this issue, be aware to take their responsibility to take action on these cases. 

            The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders, deal with those that have broken the law and committed this crime.  And if we can do that then we can begin to deal with this issue – not only prosecute those that are involved, but more importantly send a signal that this is not – this is not a problem that we are going to ignore in the United States military. 

            Let me ask General Dempsey to say a few words. 

            GENERAL DEMPSEY:  Good evening.  I’m here actually speaking not just for myself, but for the Joint Chiefs.  We realize that the crime of sexual assault erodes the very fabric of our profession.  Our profession is built on trust and this particular crime erodes that trust.  

            (Inaudible) – make a difference and we haven’t been able to make a difference.  So as the joint chiefs we’re coming together with the support of the secretary of defense and in collaboration with this caucus to try to get after it and to actually make a difference.  Thank you. 

            MS.     :  (Inaudible) – the chairman and the secretary have to leave in just a couple of minutes.  I don’t know if you have time for a few questions. 

            Q:  (Inaudible.)  Can you share with us what you know about military personnel involved in the alleged misconduct in Colombia – (inaudible) – and what you think are the next steps for these allegations – (inaudible) – inside DoD. 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Well, as I indicated, whether any of these individuals in Colombia or any country or in the United States, we expect them to abide by the highest standard of behavior and that’s a requirement.  So we’ve asked for a full investigation of the matter.  It is being investigated by Southern Command.  General Fraser has already deployed an officer to the scene to investigate it.  We’re awaiting a report from that investigation – (inaudible) – determine that there’s been a violation – (inaudible). 

            Q:  Over the weekend CNN reported that – (inaudible) – oftentimes been, for lack of a better term, drummed out of the military who have been diagnosed with personality disorder or other psychiatric problems.  And then their charges go uninvestigated.  Aside from the dramatic steps that you’re taking today and that you’ve taken – (inaudible) – is anything being done for these victims, mostly women, who are not only were the crimes against them not investigated and punished, but in some cases these women are being expected to pay back the military for the training they got where it’s costing them money.  Is there any chance of it being addressed on this? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Obviously our goal here is to try to put in place what we need in order to deal with these cases of assault.  There are procedures within – (inaudible) – that allow these individuals to raise these concerns and determine whether or not they have not been treated fairly.  But I think – I hope that they’ll follow the procedures to determine whether or not that has been the case. 

            Q:  Do these steps take effect immediately, or do you need authorization from the Congress?

            SEC. PANETTA:  The step with regards to moving it to the special court martial level I can take through executive action, and I will.  Obviously if the Congress decides to incorporate it as part of the legislation, that’s fine too.  But these other steps will require legislation. 

            GEN. DEMPSEY:  (Inaudible) – language is identical to what the secretary is talking about. 

            Q:  To clarify, does the special victim unit include special prosecutors like what the Army has now?  And can you talk a little bit about what kind of training they’ll get?  Will their training be based on the Army model and – (inaudible) – January? 

            SEC. PANETTA:  Let me ask General Dempsey. 

            GEN. DEMPSEY:  A year or more ago we began to give our criminal investigators special training in investigating this particular crime.  What the secretary’s directive is to do now is actually form a special group of prosecutors who aren’t – this is not something they do among all other criminal investigations.  It’s focused on this.  We think that’s the next logical step.  

            MS.     :  One more question. 

            Q:  I’d like to ask you both about the budget again.  General Dempsey, I know you were asked about – (inaudible) – happened.  Since then – (inaudible) – a little bit and Senator McConnell came forward saying he thought it was – (inaudible) – that they knew about this kind of budget cut.  I wonder if you’d both tell us where you stand on what people who defend – who defended -- the Pentagon can and can’t say about the president’s budget cuts.  Specifically – (inaudible) – should they be given a voice or is this, you know, political theater – (inaudible). 

            SEC. PANETTA:  They sure as hell can be given a voice and they are given a voice.  We’ve had 50 hearings on the Hill dealing with the budget in which they’ve been asked questions regarding both the strategy and budget decisions, and that the bottom line is that this was a team effort.  Everybody worked together on strategy, everybody worked together on budget decisions.  And I think the fact that we are a unified team with regards to the strategy and the budget could be an aggravation to some, but it happens to be the fact. 

            GEN. DEMPSEY:  What he said.  (Laughter.)  I understand.  (Inaudible) – climate that we have established throughout this process – very challenging process, so the climate has been one where we – (inaudible). 

            MR.     :  (Inaudible) – somehow jeopardizing their careers – (inaudible). 

            GEN. DEMPSEY:  I’ve never heard of any such thing happening in my entire 38 years.  How do I answer that question?  Look, all I can say is what I’ve experienced personally.  I don’t see that.  And if any generals are listening, come and talk to me – (inaudible). 

            MR.     :  Thank you. 

            MS.     :  Thank you very much.