WASHINGTON - The Pentagon is coming under pressure to give Congress detailed information on the handling of sex crime cases in the armed forces following an Associated Press investigation that found a pattern of inconsistent judgments and light penalties for sexual assaults at U.S. bases in Japan.
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who's led efforts in Congress to address military sexual crimes, is pressing the Defense Department to turn over case information from four major U.S. bases: Fort Hood in Texas, Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in California, and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
Such records would shed more light on how military commanders make decisions about court martials and punishments in sexual assault cases and whether the inconsistent judgments seen in Japan are more widespread.
AP's investigation, which was based on hundreds of internal military documents it first began requesting in 2009, found that what appeared to be strong cases were often reduced to lesser charges. Suspects were unlikely to serve time even when military authorities agreed a crime had been committed. In two rape cases, commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial and dropped the charges instead.
Gillibrand, who leads the Senate Armed Services personnel panel, wrote Monday to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel asking for "all reports and allegations of rape, forcible sodomy, sexual assault, sex in the barracks, adultery and attempts, conspiracies or solicitations to commit these crimes," for the last five years.
She said AP's investigation is "disturbing evidence" that some commanders refuse to prosecute sexual assault cases and the Pentagon should have provided the records more quickly.
The documents may build momentum for legislation she has introduced that would strip senior officers of their authority to decide whether serious crimes, including sexual assault cases, go to trial. The bill would place that judgment with trial counsels who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or above. The legislation, expected to be voted on in coming weeks, is short of the 60 votes needed to prevent a filibuster.
Defense Department officials have acknowledged the problem of sexual assaults in the ranks and said they are taking aggressive steps to put a stop to the crimes.
"This isn't a sprint," said Jill Loftus, director of the Navy's sexual assault prevention program. "This is a marathon and it's going to take a while."
Col. Alan Metzler, deputy director of the Defense Department's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said numerous changes in military law and policy made by Congress and the Pentagon are creating a culture where victims trust that their allegations will be taken seriously and perpetrators will be punished. Defense officials noted that the cases in Japan preceded changes the Pentagon implemented in May.
The information acquired by AP through the open records law consists of more than 1,000 reports of sex crimes involving U.S. military personnel between 2005 and early 2013. Although AP sought the full investigative file for the cases, to include detail-rich exhibits, the Pentagon mainly provided summaries of cases from the U.S. Naval Criminal Investigative Service.
That service, which handles the Navy and Marine Corps, excised the names of U.S. commanders from the records, affording senior officers the same degree of privacy as the alleged victims. But with their identities kept secret, commanders can't be held publicly accountable for how they handled the cases.
Gillibrand's request doesn't seek the exhibits for cases. She is asking for reports and recommendations made in Article 32 proceedings, the military's version of a grand jury, and the results of all courts-martial that were convened to adjudicate rapes and other serious sex crimes.
She said it's been a struggle to get timely and accurate data from the Defense Department about sexual assault cases.
"They are maintaining a closed system when what we really need is sunshine," Gillibrand said in an AP interview. "What we really need is light and transparency so we can get to the root of the problem and then find the right solutions."
But Metzler cautioned that too much openness could result in a fewer victims stepping forward to report crimes.
"To suggest that we need to be very public about what's going on in each individual case risks the trust that we want to build with those victims," Metzler said. Such information, however, is publicly available in the civilian justice system.
The top U.S. officer in Japan, Lt. Gen. Salvatore Angelella, was unable to make a scheduled appearance Monday at the Japan National Press Club in Tokyo due to heavy snow. Angelella took questions submitted in advance over Skype but did not respond to AP's question about the adjudication of sexual assault cases involving U.S. personnel in Japan.
In an earlier statement to AP, Angelella said the military takes the issue of sexual assault "very seriously."
"Sexual assault is a crime and a contradiction to everything we stand for," he said.