Military seeks to limit Congress on addressing child sex assault


Associated Press

WASHINGTON

U.S. military officials have sought to ward off congressional efforts to address child-on-child sexual assaults on bases, even as they disclose that the problem is larger than previously acknowledged.

Members of Congress expressed alarm and demanded answers after an Associated Press investigation revealed that reports of sexual violence among kids on U.S. military bases and at Pentagon-run schools are getting lost in a dead zone of justice that often leaves both victim and offender without help.

With at least three potential legislative fixes being drafted, military officials have had a clear message during briefings with lawmakers and their staffs: We can handle this on our own. It’s a strategy that began months ago, after the Pentagon received AP’s questions and well before officials understood the scope or severity of the problem.

In March, AP documented nearly 600 sex-assault cases among children and teens on U.S. bases worldwide over a 10-year period. Army criminal investigators have now added another 86 investigations to the 223 they initially disclosed. The revision came after AP challenged data that suggested major installations in several states and overseas had no or only a few such sexual assault cases.

One Texas congressman has filed legislation that would direct the Pentagon to transfer cases to state authorities, who, unlike the military or federal prosecutors, have much more experience handling juvenile offenders. At least two Senate offices are drafting legislative language to address the problems that AP’s reporting revealed.

In response, officials from the service branches and the Pentagon school system lobbied for time to fix the problem themselves, according to interviews and records.

School system officials have told AP they were developing new rules for responding to the sexual violence. The Defense Department promised more broadly to take “appropriate actions” to help juveniles involved in sex assaults.

“I think they would like to make the corrections ... because, simply, they can do it faster than Congress can,” Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who served in the Army National Guard and is a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said of her meeting with Pentagon school system officials.

Ernst said school officials did not offer specific steps they would take and that, while she supported internal reforms, she might still back legislation.

A staffer in another senator’s office said the military briefers thought they were getting the problem under control.

“They did not want any legislative action on this,” said the staffer, who was not authorized to speak publicly and did so on condition of anonymity. The staffer thought legislation would be needed.

Some military officials began discussing how to limit congressional involvement last fall, as AP was gathering records and data about child-on-child sexual assaults on bases. At that point, the Pentagon was not tracking the problem, but some military officials expected news coverage to generate attention from Congress.

AP’s investigation found that many reports were shelved by military criminal investigators, while other cases were unprosecuted by civilian authorities, who are responsible because military law doesn’t apply to service members’ families.

“I hope to be able to demonstrate that we are making progress on our own, and do not need any legislative assistance,” Col. William Smoot, the Army’s chief of criminal law, wrote in an October email to fellow Judge Advocate General lawyers. Smoot asked colleagues to relate how they were coordinating with civilian prosecutors so that the Army could “determine what, if any, changes should be made.”

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