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Editorial: Duty to stem assaults belongs to U.S. defense chief

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin E. Dempsey speak during a media briefing at the Pentagon. (May 17, 2013) Credit: Getty Images

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is about to get what he wants from Congress. He has fought off Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's attempt to strip military commanders of the power to decide who is prosecuted for sexual assault. So now responsibility for stemming the epidemic of those crimes in the ranks rests squarely on the secretary's shoulders. He has to get it done.

Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) fought hard to shift authority for pursuing sexual assaults to professional military prosecutors. But her amendment was left out of a critical defense bill in a deal reached Monday by heads of the House and Senate armed services committees that cleared the way for a vote before the end of the year.

The bill would help toughen how sex crimes are handled. It would strip commanders of the power to overturn sexual assault convictions, provide legal counsel for people who report they've been victimized and make retaliation against them a crime. And it would require that service members convicted of rape or other serious sexual offenses be discharged. But unfortunately it wouldn't move responsibility for prosecuting assaults out of the chain of command, which has pursued and punished relatively few.

So the buck still stops with Hagel, whom Gillibrand called out in a Politico interview early this month, saying, "He has not shown leadership. . . . I think he has not lived up to his promises, the promises of having the passion and the drive for rooting out the scourge of sexual violence."

She's right. Hagel must demand more aggressive prosecution of sex offenders. And he has to find ways to change a military culture that is much too tolerant of rape and sexual abuse and so antagonistic toward victims that, according to the Pentagon, only 3,374 sexual assaults were reported in 2012 out of an estimated 26,000 that occurred.

Lawmakers should keep a hard eye on Hagel. If he doesn't show quick, solid results, Congress should be ready to pull rank.