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GAO faults Pentagon oversight of sexual offenses

More than eight years since plans touted by defense officials

Back in 2011, the Government Accountability Office urged the Pentagon to start formally monitoring how military leaders were doing in combating sexual harassment and assault, and the auditors also proposed establishing a Defense Department system for tracking progress in the overall effort.

At the time, a top Pentagon official agreed fully in writing with the auditors’ recommendations and said both tasks would be done that year.

But, more than eight years later, neither job has been accomplished, GAO reported this week.

Armed Services Committee members in both chambers, when apprised of the unmet goal, said it exemplifies an inadequate Pentagon focus on a continuing scourge.

“For the DoD to come to Capitol Hill and provide sworn testimony in congressional hearings that they have zero tolerance for sexual harassment and assault, all the while knowing that they have failed to take even these common-sense steps to prevent this kind of toxic rot for nearly a decade after GAO outlined the actions, is infuriating and unacceptable,” Rep. Jackie Speier, a California Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Military Personnel, said in a statement to CQ Roll Call.

“Had these policies been adopted in 2011, who knows how much further we would be in the fight to eliminate not just harassment but other forms of sexual violence in our armed forces.”

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Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a New Hampshire Democrat who is a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, also said the Pentagon has taken too long to set up the oversight mechanisms.

“These delays are a poor reflection of the Department’s commitment to root out sexual harassment, and DOD leadership must do better,” Shaheen told CQ Roll Call in a statement. “I urge the Department of Defense to move expeditiously and implement these policies and oversight framework to ensure the health and safety of all service members.”

Pentagon promised prompt action

The GAO compiled 81 of the auditors’ top-priority recommendations for the Defense Department that have yet to be implemented. The topics covered everything from financial management to cybersecurity to weapons purchases.

Several recommendations concerned sexual assault and harassment.

“Our work has found weaknesses in DOD’s approach to instituting effective policies and programs on sexual harassment,” the Tuesday report said. “In 2011, we found that DOD did not have assurance that individuals in positions of leadership were being held accountable for promoting, supporting, and enforcing the department’s sexual harassment prevention policies and programs.”

The 2011 report urged the department to develop a strategy for holding leaders accountable and, secondly, to create an oversight plan that would establish goals, means, metrics and funding levels for improving the situation.

Jo Ann Rooney, then the principal deputy Defense undersecretary for personnel and readiness, said in a Sept. 13, 2011, letter included in the report that the department concurred with both recommendations and would implement them in that fiscal year.

“Leadership accountability is essential to the success of Service and DoD efforts to prevent sexual harassment,” Rooney wrote in reference to the proposal to create a way to gauge leaders’ actions.

As for the oversight framework, Rooney wrote that she “recognizes the need” for the department to help guide prevention efforts.

But GAO reported this week that, as of January 2020, the Pentagon was still coordinating implementation of the recommendations.

Brenda Farrell, GAO’s director of defense capabilities and management, said in a statement for CQ Roll Call on Tuesday that the recommendations in question are important.

“First, for individuals in positions of leadership, support for DOD’s sexual harassment policies and programs must be unequivocal — those who do not take the issue of sexual harassment seriously or who do not address incidents when they occur can undermine the department’s efforts,” Farrell said.

“Second,” she said, “the absence of an oversight framework— including performance goals, objectives, milestones, and metrics — limits the ability of decision makers, including Congress and DOD, to assess the effectiveness of the department’s policies and programs for addressing incidents of sexual harassment.”

Rising reports of offenses

In recent years, the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact between Defense Department personnel, both military and civilian, has increasingly been the subject of public and congressional attention.

Lawmakers in both parties have tried to stem sexual offenses within the military for more than a decade, inserting dozens of provisions into the annual Pentagon policy bill aimed at changing military culture and the handling of these crimes.

Military leaders have spoken out more and more about the importance of tackling the problem. To deal with it, the Defense Department has launched a bevy of surveys and reports and has created new organizations and oversight mechanisms.

Jessica Maxwell, a Pentagon spokeswoman, told CQ Roll Call on Thursday that the net effect of the department’s many actions to address the issue in recent years have helped achieve what GAO recommended.

“Since 2017, the Department redoubled efforts to prevent and respond to harassment and other problematic behaviors through more rigorous policies, establishment of oversight forums, and a more holistic response to preventing sexual harassment from a broader framework of violence prevention,” Maxwell said.

Still, the progress is mixed at best, experts said.

An October 2019 report on the Pentagon’s top management challenges from the department’s inspector general office included sexual offenses on the list and noted that a substantial portion of them are not prosecuted fully. The report also noted that a climate that condones sexual offenses is likely to be plagued by other problems. And it said people who are victims of sexual crimes often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder for years afterward.

The number of reported sexual assault and harassment cases in the military rose in each of the last three years for which data is available — from 6,172 in fiscal 2016 to 7,825 in fiscal 2019, the report said.

Some observers say the rise in reports could reflect greater awareness about the issue and that, in turn, has led to more reporting — as opposed to a hike in underlying offenses.

Still, the inspector general’s report concluded, “sexual assault within the DoD remains a persistent and serious challenge.”

Some in Congress contend that the problem remains endemic and underreported.

“For too long, sexual harassment in the military has been a systemic problem,” Shaheen said. And the GAO’s Farrell said the Defense Department “has not demonstrated the commitment necessary to effectively address” the problem.

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