Top officials at the Pentagon have ordered service chiefs to come up with plans to combat the "crisis" of sexual assault, and indicated they may find the "game changing" solution among the proposed legislation from Capitol Hill.
News broke Thursday of the third incident in two weeks in which a senior military official tasked with preventing sexual assault was relieved of his post for accusations of impropriety. President Barack Obama met with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs Chairman Army Gen. Martin Dempsey and the service branch chiefs at the White House Thursday afternoon to discuss what he considers a "scourge" of sexual assaults.
Hagel announced at a press conference Friday afternoon he has tasked each of the service chiefs to come up with a "sexual assault prevention and response stand-down" plan by July 1 in an attempt to restart the military's ability to prevent such crimes.
The military's top officer said 10 years of war has muddied the issue of sexual assaults, and looks to multiple proposals from members of Congress for the potential solution.
"You might argue we've become a little too forgiving," said Dempsey on Friday. "If a perpetrator shows up in a court martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart [Medal], there is certainly the risk that we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime."
The military is looking for "game changers," he says, which may come from these congressional proposals. Some of these include providing victims of sexual assault with a military lawyer to navigate the judicial system, and for removing the responsibility of commanders to convene a court martial and instead handing the case directly to a prosecutor.
Hagel and Dempsey said they are open to every option, but shied away from confirming they support any particular measure.
"In our system, we give a commander life-and-death decision-making authority," Dempsey said. "I can't imagine going forward to solve this issue without commanders involved."
The Senate Armed Service Committee chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and ranking member James Inhofe, R-Okla., have asked Dempsey to interpret the military liability of any of the congressional proposals.
"There are so many dimensions to this I don't think you can come at it in one simple way," said Hagel, referencing Obama's Thursday statement that there is no "silver bullet" to solving this problem.
Hagel cited the importance of the nine-member Sexual Review Panel, mandated by Congress in the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act, to identify likely solutions among the congressional and military recommendations.
The secretary conducted his first telephone conference Friday morning with the panel, comprised of four congressionally-appointed members and five members chosen by Hagel. Hel also scheduled for Friday afternoon the first in a new weekly meeting with representatives from the service branches to update him on the status of preventing sexual assaults.
"It's not enough to say we have a zero tolerance policy," he said.
Hagel also confirmed that alcohol use is a "very big factor" in sexual assaults.
"There's no question it does," he said. "That is part of this, but it can't be used as an excuse."
"I remember in my early days in the Army when racial issues and drug abuse tore at the fabric of our service," Dempsey said. "The Army was broken. With moral leadership and a recommitment to professionalism we changed that course, and we restored the trust in the ranks and trust between us and the American people."
The joint force is not broken today, he added, "but we have a serious problem that we must solve."