Updated at: 05/09/2013 6:35 PM
By DONNA CASSATA
(AP) WASHINGTON - Congressional efforts to combat sexual assault in the military secured the support of the Obama administration as senior White House officials met privately Thursday with a bipartisan group of lawmakers.
Outrage over the Pentagon’s latest estimates on sexual assaults and two recent cases of officers overturning convictions have injected new energy into efforts to rewrite decades-old laws for the military.
"I feel that there is positive momentum on this issue," said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, a participant in the White House meeting and co-sponsor of legislation.
Valerie Jarrett, President Barack Obama’s senior adviser; Tina Tchen, chief of staff to first lady Michelle Obama, and other senior officials met Thursday morning with 16 Republicans and Democrats from the House and Senate _ 14 female lawmakers and two men, Turner and Rep. Tim Ryan, D-Ohio.
Jarrett chairs the White House Council on Women and Girls, and Tchen is the executive director. Obama has said he has no tolerance for the problem and that the Pentagon must address it head-on.
Several of the lawmakers have been at the forefront on the issue of sexual assault in the uniformed services and have introduced legislation in Congress that suddenly is moving quickly.
"We must strengthen existing laws and policies so that perpetrators face justice and victims can come forward without fear of retribution and with confidence that they will receive the support, care, and justice they deserve," another meeting participant, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., said in a statement.
The White House requested the meeting, and lawmakers expressed appreciation for the administration’s outreach in what they expect will be a collaborative effort.
"This will be a coordinated response where before we had individual lawmakers _ myself and Niki Tsongas working together, individual lawmakers working on solutions," Turner said in an interview.
In its massive report on Tuesday, the Pentagon outlined how sexual assaults across the military are a growing epidemic. Despite various oversight and assistance programs, troubling new numbers estimate that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, according to results of a survey. Of those, fewer than 3,400 reported the incident, and nearly 800 of them simply sought help but declined to file complaints against their alleged attackers.
In an effort to address the escalating problem, the services have created a number of programs and pilot projects, ranging from placing victims’ advocates in units to requiring barracks inspections.
The Navy, for example, began pilot programs in Great Lakes, Ill., that worked with local hotels and bars to try to crack down on drinking by sailors from the naval station there. And they have been working to encourage other sailors to intervene when they see their mates in trouble or engaging in bad behavior.
The Army, which is the only service to see an actual decline in reported sexual assaults last year, focused on its I. A.M. Strong campaign; the letters stand for intervene, act and motivate. The program relies on senior leaders creating a positive climate within their commands and includes efforts to hold offenders accountable and reduce the stigmas of reporting the assaults.
In a similar program, the Air Force required "bystander intervention training" for all its service members and civilians.
The services have developed videos and materials that target various groups, including academy students, senior leaders and service members who were victims of sexual assault before they joined the military.
The statistics on sexual assaults emerged against a backdrop of scandals, including an ongoing investigation into more than 30 Air Force instructors for assaults on trainees at a Texas base. And the report comes just days after the Air Force’s head of sexual assault prevention was arrested on charges of groping a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot.
In addition, lawmakers have decried the incident of an Air Force officer overturning a jury’s guilty verdict in a sexual assault case.
Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin reversed the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy who was found guilty last year of charges of abusive sexual contact, aggravated sexual assault and three instances of conduct unbecoming of an officer and a gentleman.
Turner and Tsongas are proposing stripping an officer’s authority to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction in major cases, such as sexual assault. Their bill would also require that an individual found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy and an attempt to commit any of those offenses be either dismissed or dishonorably discharged.
The House Armed Services Committee is expected to include a version of their legislation in next year’s sweeping defense policy bill. The panel begins its work later this month and the chairman, Rep. Howard "Buck" McKeon, R-Calif., said Thursday that the committee will take steps to address the issue.
"This week, Americans have been dismayed and outraged at new instances of the persistent and unacceptable problem of sexual assault in the military," McKeon said. "I share their anger and their desire to bring this trend to an end."
Separately, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., sent a letter to the leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee pressing them to include a provision in the defense policy bill stripping commanders of the authority to overturn convictions in sexual assault cases.
"We must hold the perpetrators of these horrible acts accountable. Failure to do so would be a betrayal of our national values and of the men and women serving in our military," Reid wrote Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jim Inhofe, R-Okla.
But there is disagreement in Congress. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he opposes efforts to strip commanders of their authority.
"For Congress to reach down and change 200 years of tradition because people don’t like what the commander did in Aviano, I think sends a terrible signal to the military justice system," Graham told reporters. "The military justice system is not the issue here. The issue here is why are there so many assaults and why is it so hard to get people to come forward."
Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Ayotte have introduced legislation to provide any victims with a special military lawyer who would assist them throughout the process, prohibit sexual contact between instructors and trainees during and within 30 days of completion of basic training or its equivalent, and ensure that sexual assault response coordinators are available to help members of the National Guard and Reserve.
Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)