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Department of Defense Briefing by Acting Undersecretary Wright, Lt. Gen. Scaparrotti and Press Secretary Little on Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Initiatives

Presenters: Acting Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness Jessica Wright; Director, Joint Staff, Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti; Press Secretary George Little
August 15, 2013

           GEORGE LITTLE: Good afternoon.

           Eliminating sexual assault for the United States armed forces continues to be one of the Department of Defense's top priorities. Every servicemember and DOD civilian deserves a safe environment in which they are free from the threat of sexual harassment and assault.

           Secretary Hagel believes we must continually evaluate and improve our prevention and response programs. In May, Secretary Hagel directed a range of initiatives designed to strengthen our programs in the areas of commander accountability, command climates, victim advocacy, and safety.

           Today, the secretary directed the immediate implementation of the following additional measures to improve victim support, strengthen pretrial investigations, enhance oversight, and make prevention and response efforts more consistent across the military services.

           First, creating legal advocacy program in each military service that will provide legal representation for sexual assault victims throughout the judicial process; next, ensuring that all pretrial investigative hearings of sexual assault-related charges are conducted by JAG officers; third, providing commanders with options to reassign or transfer servicemembers accused of sexual assault or related offenses in order to eliminate continued contact while respecting the rights of both victims and the accused; requiring that the first general or flag officer within the chain of command receive timely follow-up reports on sexual assault incidents and responses; directing DOD's inspector general to regularly evaluate closed sexual assault investigations; standardizing prohibitions on inappropriate behavior between recruiters and trainers and their recruits and trainees across DOD; and, finally, developing and proposing changes to the Manual for Courts-Martial that would let victims give input during the sentencing phases of courts martial.

           All of these measures will provide victims with additional rights, protections, and legal support, and help ensure that sexual assault-related investigations and judicial proceedings are conducted thoroughly and professionally.

           The Department of Defense has also established an independent panel in accordance with the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013, and this panel is reviewing and assessing the systems used to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate crimes involving sexual assault and related offenses under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Secretary Hagel has met with panel members, and he will closely review their recommendations when complete.

           Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force. It must be stamped out.

           Secretary Hagel will continue to meet weekly with DOD's senior leadership team to personally review DOD's efforts and ensure that directives and programs are being implemented effectively, and the department will continue to work closely with both Congress and the White House on eliminating sexual assault in the United States military. We are all accountable to fix this problem, and we will fix it together.

           With that, I will turn it over to my colleagues, Acting Undersecretary Wright and General Scaparrotti.

           MS. WRIGHT: Good afternoon. I'm Jessica Wright, the acting undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness.

           Let me first emphasize Secretary Hagel. He understands the urgency of the problem, and he understands that concrete actions are important, not just words.

           As you heard from Mr. Little, Secretary Hagel directed immediate implementation of additional measures to gain greater consistency of effort across the military services. These measures will, one, incorporate the best practices of the services and make them common throughout the armed forces; enhance the quality of the investigative and legal process; and improve victim support.

           We are committed to a dynamic and responsive sexual assault prevention program. Through the multi-discipline program, we constantly work to identify new ways to prevent sexual assault, as well as respond effectively and appropriately should a crime occur.

           Our prevention and response are not static. We continually evaluate our programs and seek ways for the department to improve them. The department and military leaders at all levels continue to assess the current policies, identify the need for change, and seek methods to improve prevention and response efforts.

           There is an unprecedented level of senior leader engagement on these issues, and they are committed -- we are committed to seeking feedback and incorporating those improvements by the victims, frontline responders unit commanders, as well as members of Congress, and the commander-in-chief.

           This is the bottom line. The bottom line is sexual assault is not tolerated, not condoned, it's not ignored, and everyone in the department -- from the newest enlistee to the secretary of defense and everyone in between -- are responsible to uphold our values and continue an environment of dignity and respect for all. Thank you.

           General Scaparrotti?

           LIEUTENANT GENERAL CURTIS SCAPARROTTI: Well, good afternoon. And thank you for the opportunity to address you today on this important topic. 

           Sexual assault and the range of inappropriate behavior associated with it is a serious and persistent problem in the military, and it erodes the trust that is the bedrock of our profession. Sexual assault's a crime, and it demands appropriate accountability.

           We are fully committed to combating sexual harassment and sexual assault in our ranks. The chairmen, the service chiefs, and the subordinate commanders have taken swift and firm action to reduce incidents, to improve victim support, and to bring perpetrators to justice. We are taking more action today, and we will continue to assess and adapt in the future.

           The secretary of defense initiatives announced today improve our ability to combat sexual assault by standardizing and enhancing victim support and protection, elevating oversight, and improving -- improving investigations that reflect our commitment to continuously improve our ability and respond to sexual assault.

           Over recent months, we've met frequently and looked both in and outside of DOD, taking best practices from across the services and from our communities. Where we have found best practices, we have moved to make them common practices throughout our services. These initiatives are a product of that process.

           In particular, our collaboration with the Senate and House Armed Services Committee and other members of the Senate and the House provides constructive direction. In fact, a number of these initiatives are also represented in ongoing congressional efforts.

           In closing, let me say that these initiatives are a part of a continuous, comprehensive campaign. They are the latest effort in our drive to raise standards to empower commanders to protect victims and to improve accountability.

           Thank you. And I look forward to your questions.

           MR. LITTLE: We'll start with Lita.

           Q: First, I guess for the general, General Scaparrotti, on -- the secretary released a memo to the top leaders talking about undue command influence. And I'm wondering if you can just talk about, how big a problem do you think the comments of the president were? And does this memo, do you think, offset any, you know, effects on undue command influence?

           And then just secondarily, for either you or for George -- George, I think you announced a little while ago that the secretary has spoken to Al-Sisi. Can you address whether or not the department thinks that canceling an exercise that hadn't happened since 2009 is any motivator at all, do you think, for the Egyptian military?

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: If I could, I'll go to your -- your question for me first. Well, first of all, as you know, the comments have -- the comments made by the president did result in an impact in some of the cases that were ongoing from the view of the -- of the judges, you know, involved in those.

            And as a result, we believed it was necessary -- I think the secretary did -- to make a statement, simply to ensure that commanders understood that they act independently, based on the merits of a case, and to ensure that there's no taint in any of the jurisdiction that takes place or any of the cases that are ongoing now.

           And, in fact, as commanders, we've got a responsibility, every one of us -- and we understood that, and we know that -- to -- to act independently on the merits of the case and to ensure due process, both for justice, for the victim, and due process for the subject. And I think it's as simple as that. The letter's clear. It's gone out to everyone. And I expect that -- I really don't expect any issue. I think commanders have and will continue to act independently in line with -- with our -- our justice system.

           MR. LITTLE: This is really not a briefing on Egypt, but let me just try to get the Egypt questions out of the way.

           The Bright Star exercise, as you heard, was -- from the president today was canceled this year. And the secretary agreed with that decision. The secretary and Minister Al-Sisi spoke at length a short while ago about this and other matters.

           Canceling this exercise was a prudent step, we believe, to signal the United States' strong objection to recent events, including violence against civilians. And we strongly encourage the government of Egypt to take appropriate measures to move toward a political transition that emphasizes inclusivity and emphasizes freedom of assembly and to take steps to restrain from -- from violence, exercise restraint.

           So this was, we believe, the right decision at this time. You saw the secretary's statement a short while ago about our desire to maintain a defense cooperation with the Egyptian military, which we've enjoyed for some time. But we're watching to see what happens next in that country.

           Q: But, again, is that a motivator or anything?

           MR. LITTLE: Pardon me?

           Q: Does -- is canceling an exercise that hasn't been held since 2009 a -- can that possibly be a motivator for the Egyptian military to change its ways?

           MR. LITTLE: Canceling the exercise is a clear signal, we believe, to Egyptian authorities that we are deeply concerned about recent events in the country.

           Q: When you say recent events...


           MR. LITTLE: And that's -- and, really, I'm going to try to bring this back to the sexual assault initiatives that we are announcing today. And so I will take one or two more questions, perhaps, on Egypt, and then go from there.

           Q: When you say recent -- it's specifically an objection to recent events, you mean the past several days? And the only reason I ask that is because we've been calling around today, talking to CENTCOM and whatnot, trying to find out what specific assets were going to go over for Bright Star. It's only a few weeks away. We know this place plans everything nine months in advance, at least, especially something like, you know, thousands of troops heading over. So it -- it kind of is giving us the impression that maybe there's been a plan not to conduct Bright Star for weeks or even months at this point.

           MR. LITTLE: There has been planning that was taking place. And the decision was made yesterday to -- and you heard the president announce it this morning -- to cancel the Bright Star exercise. So I would take exception with the notion that we've not been planning for Bright Star.

           Q: Can you just give us a sense of what would have been going over there, then, of what U.S. assets would have been...

           MR. LITTLE: I don't have those details right now. We can try to follow up later. And last...

           Q: (OFF-MIC)

           MR. LITTLE: I think we're going to focus on sexual assault initiatives today. Spencer, and then maybe one more on Egypt, and then we'll...

           Q: Thank you. Thank you, George. For weeks, you provided readouts of calls between Secretary Hagel and General Al-Sisi, and they've nearly always said that the secretary urged not -- for the Egyptian military not to engage in any bloodshed. Obviously, yesterday was a massacre in Cairo. Does the secretary feel General Al-Sisi was being straight with him? Does he feel that there's any loss of faith now that this bloodshed has occurred? Does he feel that there can be trust going forward with the Egyptian military after the bloodshed?

           MR. LITTLE: You heard the president say earlier today that the United States is deeply concerned about the recent violence. And the secretary believes that maintaining an open line of communication with General Al-Sisi is very important for any number of reasons, to convey the strong views of this government about developments in Egypt. These, at the end of the day, are Egyptian decisions, not American decisions. I would remind everyone of that. And we expect contact to continue.

           Secretary Hagel is not the only senior U.S. official who's been in contact with Egyptian authorities. Secretary Kerry and others have also been in contact.

           We have emphasized the need to move toward peaceful political transition, to provide security in the country, and to refrain from violence. And I would expect contact, as I said, to continue and for us to continue to urge Egyptian authorities to choose the right course for the Egyptian people.

           Let's get back to the initiatives today.

           Q: Can we do one more?

           MR. LITTLE: One more, and then we're going to move on.

           Q: One on India, too, please.

           Q: Members of -- members of -- members of...

           MR. LITTLE: We're going to do one more on Egypt and then come back to the topic du jour.

           Q: Members of Congress and others are already calling for an immediate shutoff of foreign aid to -- military aid to Egypt. I realize it's a very complicated process, but can you walk us through what your options are and if you're giving active consideration to turning off the spigot of aid?

           MR. LITTLE: I'm not going to go beyond what the secretary said in his written statement and what the president said earlier today. There are -- are a number of factors that go into our relationship with Egypt. That's -- to be sure, the military relationship is one of those factors. We have relationships at the political level and at the economic level.

           And so it's a complicated set of factors. I'm not going to discuss what our internal deliberations may or may not be about at this stage.

           All right. Let's return to the topic of the day. Any other questions? Craig?

           Q: I have a question about the topic of the day.

           MR. LITTLE: All right.

           Q: This is a...

           MR. LITTLE: No more Egypt.

           Q: ... a small -- small factual question, actually. I'm trying to get a sense of the background of the -- Secretary Hagel's directive to report sexual assault investigations up the chain of command to the first general or -- or admiral. Didn't Secretary Panetta when he was in office do something similar, but he said they report up to the 05 or 06 level? So is this the second stage that the department has done in this regard? Didn't it just do something similar to this a year or two ago?

           MS. WRIGHT: Go ahead.

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Secretary Panetta's -- and you can correct me if I'm wrong -- Secretary Panetta's directive was that, at the point of determining prosecution, it would be the special court martial convening authority, which is typically a colonel in the Army or a captain in the Navy, would take that action. So they took the decision on prosecution to a higher level.

           This requires across the services -- this initiative today raises oversight, in other words, reporting at a minimum to a general officer, the first general officer in the chain. So it ensures oversight at a higher level, a general officer, flag officer rank. Now...

           Q: Just to report -- I'm sorry. Just to clarify, just to report it to them, but they don't have to take action or approve anything? Is that...

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: They are not -- they will not take -- necessarily take the action with -- you know, concerning prosecution, et cetera. It's so that we ensure immediate oversight at an experienced level for the actions that take place, from the point that we know of the report and beyond, to include -- at times later that will be determined -- that they may look at it in a holistic sense as a review to ensure that not only from the point of report, but actions after it are appropriate and -- and following our procedures.

           MS. WRIGHT: If I can just add to -- to what General Scaparrotti said, there are steps that the -- that the sexual assault coordinator and commander have to take, and those steps are that if someone files an unrestricted report, they need to identify the military investigation command for that investigation to take place.

           So as General Scaparrotti explained, as the notification goes to the first general officer, that oversight will also ensure that the commands are following all the correct steps for the victim to make sure that they get medical treatment, to make sure that the military investigation command is contacted to start the investigation. So that is the -- that's one of the issues.

           Q: Was there a problem with this? I mean, are...

           MS. WRIGHT: No, there wasn't a problem. In fact, what -- what these initiatives really do, these are best practices that we have garnered from all of the services. And as the secretary reviewed the best practices, he wanted to make these a common standard for all of the services.

           So a lot of the services were doing these initiatives, but he decided it -- because they were considered best practices, that he should make it a commonality across the services that all services will do these things.

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: If I could, I could expand on that.

           MS. WRIGHT: Absolutely.

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: One of the other initiatives, for instance, was -- was the initiative that requires a judge advocate to hold the Article 32 investigation, the early investigation, to see whether this would then be prosecuted.

           And, for instance, although not mandated in the past, many commanders, myself included, when I had a very complex crime, a sexual assault, or -- or a complex criminal issue, I would typically go to one of my SJAs to hold that Article 32, because they have the absolute experience and background to do it and could do it best with -- with greater efficiency.

           And so we've had commanders do that in the past, other services, across all the services. We felt that in this case, for sexual assault, that it's a good initiative to make common.

           MR. LITTLE: Chris?

           Q: General Scaparrotti, you mentioned that the -- raising the oversight level to the -- to the general flag officer level, can you address the concerns of some of the victims who have lost trust in the military, that that won't -- may not be enough? Raising the oversight level at a time when one of the most notorious cases is a brigadier general, Jeffrey Sinclair, can you understand why some victims still don't have trust in that military oversight?

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, I think -- first of all, our -- our soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines know that today there's about 10 avenues for them to report. And they also know that, when they do report, it immediately goes to a -- to a military investigation office in law enforcement, and it's handled by them. And -- and they know that that's outside the chain of command of their commanders in the unit that they're in.

           So there's a number of initiatives that have been taken to make sure that those who will have concerns, we've begun to take action so that their procedures and the jurisdictional procedures are outside of that exact chain of command in terms of how we conduct the investigation and then when we -- when we prosecute crimes, as well.

           For instance, the victim -- victim advocacy program today gives them basically a multi-discipline team with a lawyer that is an advocate for that victim. So those are the things that we're doing to address some of the issues with trust.

           We have to attack that, because, frankly, we want increased, unrestricted reporting. And we can only get that if we can work at the trust of our victims. So those are some of the things that we've done. I'm confident that we're making a difference. I think if you look specifically in this last year, the focus, the energy of the chain of command, our -- our servicemembers know that we're serious about this and units.

           Q: Sir, as far as sexual assault as a concern, some of them had taken place and do take place in foreign country, let's say there's a base, but local women are involved. As far as rules or regulations of those countries, do you inform those local countries, local jurisdictions, on where -- how do they follow the rules? Are the U.S. rules being followed there or the local rules?

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, you know, when we're in a foreign country, we have agreements with those countries that we're with that are specific to each country, and we act in agreement with that specific set of rules.

           You know, as -- as a nation, we represent our ideals, the ideals of this country. And so while we ensure the proper prosecution of our members, if that is appropriate in a given instance, we also follow those values, and we let countries that we're dealing with know about incidents that happen. I know that was the case in Afghanistan.

           So I think with each country, it's a little bit different and the procedures for that. But, you know, we're America's services, and we follow those ideals, and that's what -- what our commanders would follow in terms of the values at the basis of what we do.

           Q: And that includes if the assault takes place on a base or even in a local club?

           MR. LITTLE: We act in accordance with agreements with -- of the country involved.

           Q: Thank you, sir.

           MR. LITTLE: Sure. And one or two more questions, and then we'll wrap it up. Tony?

           Q: Senator Gillibrand, one of your more persistent critics, put out a note before you sent your memo today, she put out a note lauding to a point what you're doing, but said this is not the leap forward required to solve the problem and that, over and over again, we're hearing from victims that they just don't trust the system enough to report in a timely manner or at all. What's your response to your most persistent critic, General and...

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Well, first of all, we've -- we've been working with Senator Gillibrand. And as you said, we -- as we look at this, we're looking at every possible idea, practice that's out there to see what might help us get after this problem, so we've been working very closely with her.

           You know, we believe there's merit in many of the legislative issues. And some of those that are out there we're still considering and working with them. So we're going to look at this. And frankly, if we believe that we can make a difference in this -- in this problem set, we'll look strongly at enacting the initiatives, other initiatives that perhaps aren't in this group here today.

           MR. LITTLE: And our final question.

           Q: There’s a strong correlation for either of you -- there's a strong correlation with these sexual assaults and use of alcohol or abuse of alcohol. I mean, to what extent are you now looking at taking more decisive measures to ensure that all of these underage folks are not, you know, having access and -- and -- you know, to alcohol, which seems to be such an aggravating factor? I mean, is there any consideration to just banning alcohol on bases? It's a workplace.

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: Yeah, if I could, I can speak on my experience, as just a command a year ago, and what commanders are doing out there today, actions that I've taken. You're right. There's a very strong correlation between the use of alcohol and these crimes. And on many bases, we've taken steps to limit alcohol in the barracks, to have our noncommissioned officers and our officers enforce those standards, in terms of the sale of alcohol on posts.

           In many posts, we would have our 24-hour shop that could -- could sell alcohol, for instance, on post, if they were open 24 hours. So when places would close down off-post, troops would come on-post to purchase more alcohol. Many, many posts have gone to a restricted timeframe on alcohol sale there, after a certain time, some as early as, say, 10 in the evening, et cetera, or restricted the amount you can buy. So this is something we have looked at and -- and the services all -- and commanders have often taken steps individually to -- to curb this.

           Q: I think my question was, are you now thinking about unifying that? You've just, you know, gone through with this initiative to sort of call out the best practices, but are you thinking of a best practices sort of guidelines for alcohol sales?

           LT. GEN. SCAPARROTTI: The issue -- what I just talked about has been discussed, but at least in the meetings I've been in, we've not discussed it in the form of making it common across the services. We've generally left it to -- to the command at this point, but we could take that on.

           MR. LITTLE: All right. Thank you, everyone, for joining us today. And we'll see you again here soon.

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