In a gathering with reporters on Capitol Hill on Wednesday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that the problem of rampant sexual assault in the military is something the military needs to handle but wouldn't yet endorse legislation to take reporting such crimes out of the chain of command.
Responding to a question asked by Adele Stan of RH Reality Check regarding the Army announcement that came late Tuesday that they were investigating an officer who was in charge of reviewing sexual assault cases for sexual abuse conduct he perpetuated, Reid said it was a "big story."
"Women can do anything men can do in the military," Reid continued, "but ... women are afraid to report this action, molestation, for fear they'd hurt their promotions, so they don't report a lot of this stuff."
Reid did not address comments by Vice President Joe Biden from earlier in the month, in which Biden said many assault survivors choose not to report because they are often publicly shamed and subjected to a judicial system that fails to provide them justice, nor a plethora of recent cases in which the military failed to secure convictions or overturned them in high-profile cases without apparent cause.
"The military is going to have to figure this out," Reid said, "because it's not working. I saw Hagel, rightfully so, said we need to give more training so that the people in these positions know more. ... I have always been a big advocate for equity in the military with men and women, I'm not going to back off from that. It's not only women, frankly, who face sexual abuse. Most of the time it is, but there are men also."
When asked if he would support legislation introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA), which aims to stem sexual assault by taking the reporting process out of the chain of command and handled by an independent body, Reid didn't yet throw his support behind it.
"We talked about that today," Reid said. "I haven't read it, but I'd be happy to look at that very favorably."
"We are encouraged by Senator Reid's remarks," Nancy Parrish, president of Protect our Defenders, an advocacy group that fights on behalf of military sexual assault victims, said in a statement to Raw Story. "It's time to fix this rotten system. It's unAmerican. Hopefully, we have reached a tipping point. We now have a cadre of members in Congress that are fighting for fundamental reform. There is reason to be hopeful."
The Hill reported that Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel has resisted legislation like Gillibrand's and its counterpart in the house, introduced by Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA), saying that the military has a plan to strip commanders of their ability to overturn verdicts, like when Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin unilaterally overturned the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, saying he didn't believe there was enough evidence.
The Army officer isn't the first sexual assault prevention officer to be charged with an assault of his own, Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski was arrested earlier this month for drunkenly assaulting a woman in a parking lot. A Pentagon report also released earlier this month estimated that more than 70 sexual assaults occur in the military every day.
Branches of the military also submitted plans to the Department of Defense on Wednesday to fully integrate women into combat positions. The ACLU of Northern California and the law firm of Munger, Tolles & Olson LLP filed a lawsuit against the Department of Defense last year to compel the military to allow women in combat roles, but before the suit could be ruled on in court, the military announced it would drop the ban on its own in January.
"Our military can't afford to lose talented service members simply because they are prevented from making the contribution they're capable of making," said Elizabeth Gill, staff attorney with the ACLU of Northern California, in a press release sent Wednesday. "No qualified service member should be denied the chance to serve our country in any capacity based solely on whether that person is male or female."
During the meeting, Reid also said it was "possible" the Employment Non-Discrimination Act, which would allow federal employment discrimination protections for LGBT people, would come up for a vote this year.
[Photograph of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid by Kay Steiger]
Update: A senior Reid staffer told Raw Story that the Majority Leader "almost never" co-sponsors legislation. The staffer pointed to a letter Reid sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee following the Pentagon's report on sexual assault earlier this month which indicated that Reid supports legislation to ensure military commanders can’t arbitrarily reverse sexual assault convictions.