SECRETARY OF DEFENSE LEON PANETTA: Good afternoon.
When I was sworn into the office of secretary of defense, I said that I had no higher responsibility than to protect those who are protecting America. Our men and women in uniform put their lives on the line every day to try to keep America safe. We have a moral duty to keep them safe from those who would attack their dignity and their honor.
That's why I've been so concerned by the problem of sexual assault in the military.
Sexual assault has no place in this department. It is an affront to the basic American values we defend, and it is a stain on the good honor of the great majority of our troops and their -- and our families.
As leaders of this department, we're committed to doing everything we can to ensure the safety, dignity and well-being of our people. These men and these women who are willing to fight and to die, if necessary, to protect and serve our country -- they're entitled to much better protection. Their families and their dependents also sacrifice and serve and so, for that reason, we have to spare no effort in order to protect them against this heinous crime.
The number of sexual assaults in the military is unacceptable. Last year 3,191 reports of sexual assault came in. But I have to tell you that because we assume that this is a very underreported crime, the estimate is that the actually is closer 19,000.
One sexual assault is one too many. Since taking this office, I've made it a top priority to do everything we can to reduce and prevent sexual assault, to make victims of sexual assault feel secure enough to report this crime without fear of retribution or harm to their career, and to hold the perpetrators appropriately accountable.
In all these efforts, I've worked closely with the military and civilian leadership of the department. I've discussed this subject with the service secretaries, with the chairman and the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and all of the service chiefs. The latest meeting was as recently as last week. They completely share my sense of urgency and commitment to addressing this problem, as do members of Congress with whom I consult regularly on this issue.
To ensure that this issue received proper visibility and attention within the department, a two-star officer, Air Force Major General Mary Kay Hertog, was appointed to serve as director of the department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office last August. General Hertog has done a great job coordinating a DOD-wide effort to address this serious and complex problem.
There are no easy answers, but that makes it all the more essential for us to devote our energy and our attention to trying to confront this crime.
Over the holidays, we announced two new policies that provide greater support for the victims of sexual assault. The first policy gives victims who report a sexual assault an option to quickly transfer from their unit or installation to protect them from possible harassment and remove them from proximity to the alleged perpetrator.
Second, we will also require the retention of written reports of sexual assault to law enforcement to be retained for a period of 50 years. The reason for that is to have these records available so that it will make it easier for veterans to file a claim with the Department of Veterans Affairs at a later date.
These two policies are the first of a broader package of proposals that we will be presenting in the coming months, many of which will require legislative action by the Congress.
Today, I want to announce some additional steps that we are taking. First, I've directed the establishment of a DOD sexual assault advocate certification program, which will require our sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates to obtain a credential aligned with national standards. This will help ensure that the victims of sexual assault receive the best care from properly trained and credentialed professionals who can provide crucial assistance from the moment an assault is committed.
Second, I have directed the department to expand our support to assault victims to include military spouses and adult military dependents, who will now be able -- this was not the case before -- they will now be able to file confidential reports and receive the services of a victim advocate and a sexual assault response coordinator.
In addition, we're going to ensure that DOD civilians stationed abroad and DOD U.S. citizen contractors in combat areas receive emergency care and the help of a response coordinator and a victim advocate.
Third, because sexual assault cases are some of the toughest cases to investigate and to prosecute, I've increased funding for investigators and for judge advocates to receive specialized training.
We're also putting in place one integrated data system. The data systems, frankly, were spread among the various services. We're going to put them together into one data system in order to track sexual assault reports and monitor case management so that we'll have a comprehensive database for information available later this year.
And finally, in addition to our focus on taking care of victims and holding perpetrators appropriately accountable, we've been focusing on what more can we do to try to prevent sexual assault? Our leaders in uniform, officers and enlisted, are on the front lines of this effort; they have to be. We must all be leaders here.
For this reason, I'm directing an assessment, due in 120 days, on how we train our commanding officers and senior enlisted leaders on sexual assault prevention and response and what we can do to strengthen that training. It's important that everyone in uniform be alert to this problem and have the leadership training to help prevent these crimes from occurring.
These are important steps. But I want to be clear that this is an ongoing effort that will remain a top priority. There's much more work to be done to prevent this crime. And we will be announcing additional initiatives over the coming weeks and months.
Let me close by speaking directly to the victims of sexual assault in this department. I deeply regret that such crimes occur in the U.S. military. And I will do all I can to prevent these sexual assaults from occurring in the Department of Defense. I'm committed to providing you the support and resources you need and to taking whatever steps are necessary to keep what happened to you from happening to others.
The United States military has a zero-tolerance policy for sexual assault. And we will hold the perpetrators appropriately accountable. I expect everybody in this department to live up to the high standards that we have set and to treat each other with dignity and with respect.
In a military force, where the promise is to help each other in battle and to leave nobody behind, that promise must begin by honoring the dignity of every person on or off the battlefield.
Major [General] Hertog. I'm going to ask Major [General] Hertog to join me up here on the questions. She knows these issues.
Q: Mr. Secretary, given the magnitude of this problem, the things you just announced today appear to be changes at the margin. What is the core reason that the Defense Department has been unable to contain this problem? And also, could you explain why the U.S. and Israel postponed the air defense exercise?
SEC. PANETTA: On the first problem, I'm also going to turn to the major general here to also respond to that.
Sexual assault, you know, across the country has been a difficult crime for communities and states and law enforcement to deal with. It's in the very nature of the crime. And that's true here in the military as well. Individuals who are the victims hesitate to report these crimes. There's peer pressure not to report it. There is concern about how it impacts on your career. And so as a result of that and the difficulty of prosecuting these cases, too often these cases go unreported.
What we've tried to do is try to change the mindset here. And that's already begun. I mean, I -- in talking with the service secretaries and the service chiefs, it's clear that they share the concern that I've just reflected. And what we are seeing are more reports coming in, and what we are seeing are more prosecutions that are taking place.
But this has to be a continuing effort. The most important thing I think we can do here is to try to train leaders at the command level to make clear that they're aware of this issue and that everyone, both enlisted and officer alike, are able to say, when they see the possibility of these situations either developing or beginning to occur, that they take steps to stop it. That's the best way to try to maintain some kind of zero-tolerance policy here.
MAJOR GENERAL MARY KAY HERTOG: I would just reiterate what the secretary said.
Every week we assess hundreds of new military members, and every week we have to try to inculcate in them the service core values that you take care of each other, that sexual assault is a crime. And that's why training up front, at the beginning, basic training, all the way through somebody's career, is so very important, as well as training our officers. I look at it as a triad between our commanders, our investigators and our prosecutors; making sure that that commander builds that command climate where somebody feels comfortable in coming forward to say ‘I've been a victim of sexual assault,’ and that investigator knowing what he or she must do to investigate that sexual assault, and that prosecutor to take that strong case to trial, to hold those perpetrators accountable.
SEC. PANETTA: On the question on the exercise, the minister -- Minister Barak approached me and indicated that they were interested in postponing the exercise. We looked at it and determined, as we always do -- this is, I think, about the -- you know, this is a number of exercise -- it's about twelfth exercise we've had -- that in order to be able to plan better and to do this so that we would be able to conduct that exercise, that it would be better postpone it, to have planning efforts that would lead up to the exercise and to get it done.
So we're both committed to making the exercise occur, but they thought it would be better if we, you know, postponed it until a later date in order that we could plan better for the exercise.
Q: Is that something to do with Iran?
Q: Mr. Secretary, both you of you had -- spoke about holding the perpetrators accountable. Yet the prosecution and conviction rates are pretty low. I mean, do you agree that there has to be more aggressive pursuit and prosecution of perpetrators? And how do you go about getting that done?
SEC. PANETTA: For successful prosecutions to take place, they've got to have good evidence.
They've got to be able to nail the case in court. And oftentimes, as you know, these cases come down to one person's word against another.
And so what needs to be done is to make sure that evidence can be gathered, that people who are victims will report quickly so that the evidence can be gathered quickly and early. And if those steps are taken, what I want to assure then, is that the prosecutors take these cases seriously and take these cases to court. Oftentimes, there is a hesitancy because of what I just said. We've got to make sure that prosecutors are as aggressive as we feel they should be in these instances, in order to make sure that the signal is sent that anybody who does this is going to be held accountable.
GEN. HERTOG: And I would just add to that, that's why we are so intent on getting some of the specialized training for investigators as well as our trial counsels to be able to handle these kinds of cases, because they are real difficult to prosecute as well as to interview victims of sexual assault, to build that best case to take forward.
Q: Mr. Secretary?
SEC. PANETTA: Yes.
Q: Nineteen thousand is a big number. Do either of you have data that shows whether this is a worse problem in the military than it is in the rest of society?
And if I could ask you a separate question, has Iran's threats to close the Strait of Hormuz caused you to make any changes in the disposition of U.S. forces in that area?
GEN. HERTOG: The 19,000 figure was an estimate that we did based on a survey back in 2010. And, now, that was not 19,000 people that came forward and said, ‘I've been a victim of sexual assault,’ but that was based on a hundred thousand sample with -- we got about 2,000 positives that said they had been sexually assaulted the previous year. So we took the end strength of the services at that point in time, and came up with the estimate of the 19,000. So we think that's a good [valid] number.
Four years ago -- or four years prior to that, in 2006, when we did the first sample survey, the figure was an estimate of 34,000. So we're starting to see it come down. In another couple of years -- and we do this survey every four years -- we will do another survey, to find out, hopefully, that it's on the down slide.
Q: How does it compare with the rest of society?
GEN. HERTOG: I don't know that anybody has got a sample -- or a survey that says, ‘this is what we have state to state, or by the United States,’ to be quite honest with you.
SEC. PANETTA: With regards to your question, David, you know, I've been reading some of the reports in the press, and I guess I just want to make clear that we have always maintained a very strong presence in that region. We have a Navy fleet located there. We have a military presence in that region. And we have -- you know, we have continually maintained a strong presence in the region, to make very clear that we were going to do everything possible to help secure the peace in that part of the world.
And so the answer to your question is that, you know, we obviously always continue to make preparations to be prepared for any contingency, but we are not making any special steps at this point in order to deal with the situation. Why? Because, frankly, we are fully prepared to deal with that situation now.
Q: Sir, are you seeing a spike in the numbers of these sexual cases, assault cases, in the last 10 years and do you link it to the current wars? And if I could just add, there are reports from Iran from lawmakers there saying that the president -- President Obama -- sent a letter to their leadership asking for talks. Is that true?
GEN. HERTOG: We haven't seen a spike, but we've seen an increase in the number of reports. We started taking reports with our options restricted-unrestricted back in 2005. So since then, the number of reports have steadily tracked up.
To me, that's not always a bad thing. That means somebody is, a victim is coming forward and willing to say, ‘I need some help; I've been sexually assaulted.’ So you have to look at it both ways, and I'm looking at it that way.
You could also look at it in the fact that, yes, more people are now maybe perhaps aware of what sexual assault is; the stigma, maybe, to report has been reduced. So we want them to come forward to make that report to us.
SEC. PANETTA: With regards to, you know, the -- obviously, you know, we have always made clear what our policies are there with regards to Iran, both in terms of their not obtaining a nuclear weapon and also, obviously, not closing the Straits of Hormuz.
As -- and -- our goal has always been to make very clear that we would hope that any differences that we had, any concerns we have can be peacefully resolved and done through international laws and international rules. We abide by those international laws and international rules. We would hope that Iran would do the same.
As far as communications, we have channels in which we deal with the Iranians, and we continue to use those channels -- nothing.
Q: But did the president send a letter?
SEC. PANETTA: I can't comment on that.
STAFF: And this will be the last question.
Q: Sir, is diplomacy still a viable option with Iran? Is this something the U.S. is seeking to engage?
SEC. PANETTA: I think it's always an option to try to be able to pursue diplomacy. You know, making very clear that in order for that to work, it takes two to be able to engage, and we've only -- we've always expressed a willingness to try to do that. But we've always made clear that in terms of any threats to the region, in terms of some of the behavior that they've conducted in the region, that we'll also be prepared to respond militarily if we have to.
Q: Thank you very much.
SEC. PANETTA: OK, thank you.