Congress Stepping Up Its Efforts Against Sexual Assault In Military.

WASHINGTON — House Speaker John A. Boehner on Thursday called the rise of sexual assaults in the military a “national disgrace” as lawmakers in both chambers of Congress moved closer this week to legislation to address the problem.

Mr. Boehner’s comments came after several weeks of continued reports of sexual assault in the armed forces and after a Pentagon survey estimated that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 in 2010.

On Thursday, Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, and Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, said they would introduce a bill to limit a military commander’s ability to change or dismiss a court-martial conviction for sexual assault.

The bill would also require mandatory dismissals or dishonorable discharges for anyone in the military convicted of rape or sexual assault. Ms. McCaskill said she was hoping for bipartisan support.

“The important thing is to try to get as many of us to agree so we don’t end up with a party-line vote,” Ms. McCaskill said.

The legislation, which is intended to crack down on offenders and keep commanders from reversing guilty verdicts in sexual assault convictions — which has occurred in recent years — is among a flurry of legislative proposals flowing through Capitol Hill. A House panel this week passed a similar measure to prohibit commanders from dismissing sexual assault findings.

The developments on Capitol Hill came a day after Army officials said that a sergeant on the staff of the United States Military Academy at West Point had been accused of videotaping female cadets when they were undressed in the bathroom or the shower.

“It’s outrageous,” Mr. Boehner told reporters on Capitol Hill, adding that Representative Howard McKeon of California, the chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, would add provisions to a new defense bill that would make changes to military law. While members of Congress have tried to take action on the sexual assault issue over the years, there is widespread agreement on Capitol Hill that the sheer volume of cases — and their escalating outrageousness — has made the need for legislation too urgent to ignore.

“There will be legislation, I’m confident, that makes changes” to military law, said Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who is chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

The biggest question is how far such legislation can go. Senator Kirsten E. Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has introduced the most controversial and sweeping proposal, which would give military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault cases to try. While her measure, intended to increase the number of people who report crimes without fear of retaliation, is gaining supporters, others suggest it goes too far.

“Taking away the power of a commander has some very significant implications in terms of the commander’s ability to deal with the problem,” said Mr. Levin, who will hold hearings on the measure after next week’s spring recess.

On Thursday, new details emerged about the soldier accused of surreptitiously taking videos of a dozen female cadets.

In at least some of the cases, according to Army officials briefed on the inquiry, Sgt. First Class Michael McClendon, who had been assigned to the academy since 2009, is believed to have entered a bathroom-shower area in a women’s barracks when few others were there. The officials said he perhaps had used the video function on a smartphone to capture images of women in the curtainless showers.

Officials said the accusations had come to light in two ways: They were alerted after Sergeant McClendon was spotted leaving the women’s bathroom-shower area, and after the video images of undressed female cadets that he had in his possession were seen by another cadet.

After the disclosure about Sergeant McClendon, the leadership at West Point moved late Wednesday and Thursday to try to assure parents of cadets that the Army “is committed to ensuring the safety and welfare of our cadets,” said Lt. Col. Webster M. Wright III, the West Point spokesman.

Messages posted at social media sites open only to West Point parents, and distributed in direct e-mails, described how a noncommissioned officer “is involved in an ongoing investigation for possession of inappropriate images taken without consent.”

The messages said the Army and West Point “are pursuing all criminal allegations.”

Similar messages have been distributed across West Point alumni networks, but they did not explain why the school or the Army had not notified cadets and parents until after the charges were disclosed in news reports.


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Shari Olefson

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