The Pentagon and White House on Thursday hailed new Defense Department initiatives intended to discourage sexual assaults within the military and to underscore how seriously the Obama administration considers the problem.
"Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who honorably serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force," Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said in a statement. "It must be stamped out."
White House spokesman Jay Carney said eliminating military sexual assaults is a "high priority goal" for the administration and that President Obama expects efforts to stamp out the problem "to be sustained... as far into the future as necessary."
The Pentagon announced six new initiatives to combat sexual violence in its ranks, including the creation of an advocacy program to guide victims through the legal process; allowing commanders to reassign those accused of sexual assault; requiring swift follow-up on sexual-assault incidents and ensuring that the Pentagon's inspector general regularly reviews certain types of sexual assault investigations.
The initiatives are expected to be implemented by year's end.
The Obama administration's sexual violence initiatives come as Congress continues its own efforts to address the problem.
The chief hold-up in congressional efforts is the Senate disagreement over whether military commanders should continue to decide which sexual assault cases would be prosecuted.
The debate has split Republicans and Democrats into unusual coalitions that are expected to revisit the issue this fall during deliberations over the Pentagon's annual authorization bill.
Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for victims of military sexual assault, characterized the new Pentagon policies as "an important step in the right direction," but criticized the decision to allow commanders, rather than outside lawyers, to continue deciding which cases to prosecute.
"Prosecutors — and not commanders — must be given the authority to decide whether to proceed to trial," Executive Director Taryn Meeks said. "To end this national disgrace, we must start with creating an independent, professional and impartial military justice system."
A Pentagon study released earlier this year estimated that 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact took place in the department in 2012.