WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The White House and U.S. lawmakers went on the offensive against sexual assault in the armed forces on Thursday after a rash of scandals that prompted the nation's top military officer to warn of a crisis in the ranks.
"We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem," Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said as he returned from NATO meetings in Brussels. "That's a crisis."
President Barack Obama called a meeting for later Thursday with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and other military leaders to discuss sexual assaults after a series of scandals discrediting efforts to stamp it out, just as the Pentagon moves ahead with plans to integrate women into front-line combat roles.
The heads of the different branches of the U.S. military submitted their plans to integrate women into those roles this week. U.S. officials said Hagel's staff is reviewing those recommendations but the secretary himself has yet to see them.
Democratic and Republican lawmakers announced legislation that would overhaul the military justice system by taking responsibility for prosecution of most felony-level cases, including sexual assault, away from the chain of command, making it easier for victims to seek justice.
The "Military Justice Improvement Act" would mean that trained military prosecutors, not commanding officers, would decide whether sexual assault cases should go to trial, according to a group of at least 16 U.S. senators and members of the House of Representatives behind the legislation.
It also would mean commanders cannot set aside the conviction of anyone who has been found guilty of sexual assault or downgrade a conviction to a lesser offense.
"This epidemic of sexual abuse cannot stand," said Republican Senator Susan Collins. A Democratic colleague in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand, said the goal was to change the culture in the military.
The legislation faces hurdles before becoming law. Gillibrand, the main sponsor, said she hopes to include it in the National Defense Authorization Act, which lawmakers are putting together now with hope of passage around mid-year.
The Pentagon has been under increasing pressure to do something about sexual assault. Its annual report on such attacks in the military released last week found that unwanted sexual contact complaints involving military personnel jumped 37 percent, to 26,000 in 2012 from 19,000 the previous year.
However, only 3,374 came forward and reported a crime in 2012, due largely to fears of retaliation and a culture activists say can be geared more toward protecting perpetrators of sex crimes than its victims.
"We are not unpatriotic for bringing this to light," said Brian Lewis, who was raped by a superior while in the Navy, but ordered not to report it. He did so anyway, and was later misdiagnosed as having a personality disorder and discharged.
The issue has been brought to the fore by assault allegations against military officers charged with solving the problems.
Last week, the officer in charge of the Air Force sexual assault prevention office was charged with groping a woman while drunk in a parking lot. And on Tuesday, the Army revealed a sergeant in the sexual assault prevention office at Fort Hood in Texas was also being accused of sex crimes.
"It is clear that something is not working," said U.S. Representative Kyrsten Sinema, a Democrat who once worked as a rape crisis counselor.
Hagel has ordered the retraining and recertification of U.S. military personnel whose job it is to work to prevent sexual assault and assist the victims. The Pentagon has made clear Hagel is open to further actions.
"There are a lot of good ideas out there. There are some I don't think are good ideas, and there are some I really don't understand," said Dempsey, who will attend Thursday's meeting with Obama and Vice President Joe Biden. "I'm hoping to provide my best advice back to those making the proposals. But I assure you that we are open-minded."
There have been several other measures introduced lately on the issue. Two Democratic senators introduced a bill on Wednesday to force Hagel to take action to strengthen sexual assault prevention programs, including improving the training and qualifications of those who work in those jobs.
Hagel last week publicly opposed taking responsibility for the prosecution of sex crimes out of the hands of the military chain of command, but Pentagon officials since then have emphasized his willingness to be flexible and work with members of Congress.
Additional reporting by Phil Stewart, David Alexander and Jeff Mason; Editing by Alistair Bell, David Brunnstrom, Doina Chiacu and Philip Barbara