Military is failing to comply with federal law in sex assault cases, report says

Author: Norah O'Donnell, Megan Towey, Kristin Steve and Adam Verdugo / CBS
Published: Updated:
FILE – This March 27, 2008, aerial file photo, shows the Pentagon in Washington. (AP Photo/Charles Dharapak, File)

Nearly a decade after Congress mandated the use of investigators and prosecutors who are specifically trained to handle sexual assault and domestic violence cases, a draft of a new Pentagon report obtained by CBS News reveals the military is failing to comply with federal law that requires it to give survivors support. In an analysis of almost 450 military special victims cases filed between 2018 to 2020, the Department of Defense’s inspector general found that 64% did not have properly trained prosecutors assigned to them.

In many of the cases, “the assigned prosecutor was an inexperienced, junior prosecutor without specialized training in special victim cases,” according to the report, which is expected to be released publicly this week after review by the branches of the military. That failure to assign specially trained prosecutors meant investigators and commanders “may not have received the best legal advice with respect to critical investigative steps and case adjudication decisions,” the report adds.

The Air Force fared the worst: 94% of survivors were represented by prosecutors not trained to handle sexual assault and domestic violence cases. The Army and Navy both failed to provide prosecutors who were adequately trained in 59% of cases; the Marine Corps fell short of the requirement 30% of the time.

“The system is rigged against these victims,” Representative Jackie Speier, a Democrat from California, said when asked about the findings of the unreleased report. “It almost appears that they want to make sure these cases don’t see the light of day.”

Speier, the chair of the House Armed Services Military Personnel Subcommittee, called these special victims cases complex, saying it takes an attorney “skillfully trained” to be able to follow evidence and ask the right questions to prosecute cases effectively. She added that the use of properly trained prosecutors would also lead to an increased rate of convictions for military sexual assault and domestic violence crimes.

Military law enforcement agencies told the inspector general that the compliance failures are partly the result of resources and staffing as special victim investigations have increased. Between 2011 and 2019, the number of investigated reports of sexual assault more than doubled in all the service branches, but the military has “not provided a corresponding increase in resources and manpower to address the increased workload,” according to the report.

The inspector general began its investigation over a year ago to determine if the military was complying with federal law and military directives that date back to 2013, and were put in place to provide better care for survivors of military sexual assault and domestic violence. The report makes three recommendations, including calling for a review of the resources that would be required to train more special victim investigators and prosecutors.

This inspector general’s report comes as the Pentagon prepares the launch of its roadmap to implement the first of four stages of changes recommended by the Independent Review Commission, which was established by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin in February at the direction of President Joe Biden following a series of CBS News reports on sexual assault in the military.

Recommendations from the commission include the creation of the Office of the Special Victim Prosecutor and moving the investigations of sexual assault and domestic violence outside the chain of command. The proposed changes are expected to cost approximately $4.6 billion to implement over the next five years.

Currently, commanders have sole discretion over whether to send cases involving sexual assault and domestic violence to court-martial. Congress is considering legislation that would take those decisions away from commanders and outside the chain of command. The Senate’s version of the bill would give that power to the top military prosecutor for each branch, the same group highlighted as failing to assign properly trained prosecutors in the inspector general report.

The House bill, co-sponsored by Speier, advocates giving civilian Department of Defense officials ultimate authority, removing cases not only from the chain of command but also outside military leadership.

“This report doesn’t surprise me because there has been a reluctance to take sexual assault cases seriously within the military for a very long time,” Speier said.

Individual service branches have already begun putting some of their own reforms in motion. In early October, the Army announced a pilot program intended to consolidate services for sexual assault survivors – including care providers, investigators and criminal prosecutors. The “fusion directorate,” the first step in a redesign of the Army’s Sexual Harassment/Assault Response and Prevention program, known as SHARP, will be implemented at six installations across the country and within the Army Reserve’s 99th Readiness Division in early spring.

This is not the first time the Army has tried to make the reporting process easier for sexual assault survivors. As part of a 2014 pilot program, SHARP Resource Centers were opened at eleven U.S. military bases around the world. The Army says the program provided valuable lessons, however, it was not extended Army-wide due to “shifting priorities and limited resources at the time,” according to Colonel Erica Cameron, leader of the SHARP Redesign Task Force.

In response to our request for comment, Pentagon spokesman Major Charlie Dietz wrote, “While we cannot discuss unreleased reports, the Department of Defense is taking deliberate and substantive action to address sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military. This includes the approved strategic roadmap to act on the recommendations of the 90-Day Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, as well as providing the needed foundational investments to support sexual assault accountability, prevention programs, healthy command climates, and quality victim care.”

A year-and-a-half-long investigation by “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell and the CBS News Investigative Unit into sexual assault within the U.S. military uncovered failures by leaders to address the issue. Over the course of the investigation, CBS News spoke with nearly two dozen survivors of sexual assault, whistleblowers who worked for the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program and families of suicide victims who say the military grossly mishandled reports of sexual assault. Then-Secretary of the Army Ryan McCarthy called the CBS News’ series of reports “very powerful” and pledged the Army would take steps to tackle sexual assault in its ranks, and that the effort would be “one of the most comprehensive steps in accountability in the Army’s history.”

A two-year-long investigation by “CBS Evening News” anchor and managing editor Norah O’Donnell and the CBS News Investigative Unit revealed the military has received roughly 100,000 reported incidents of domestic abuse since 2015. Nearly 40 spouses, partners and service members who reported the crime told CBS News their allegations were dismissed and the military failed to keep them safe. As a result of CBS News’ reporting, the secretary of the Air Force ordered a review of how cases were handled.

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