03-26-2019  9:07 am      •     
Tom Watkins CNN
Published: 15 August 2013

(CNN) -- In an apparent effort to clarify comments made last spring by President Barack Obama on pursuing military sexual assault convictions, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has given required reading to every military officer and enlisted member of the Defense Department.

"Each military justice case must be resolved on its own facts," Hagel writes in the one-page memo, dated August 6, which was obtained by CNN's Chris Lawrence and titled "Integrity of the Military Justice Process."

"Those who exercise discretionary authority in the military justice process must exercise their independent judgment, consistent with applicable law and regulation," it continues. "There are no expected or required dispositions, outcomes, or sentences in any military justice case, other than what result from the individual facts and merits of a case and the application to the case of the fundamentals of due process of law."

The tone of the memo contrasts with that of Obama's comments at a White House news conference in May, when he addressed the issue of sexual assault in the military.

"When you engage in this kind of behavior that's not patriotic -- it's a crime," Obama told reporters. Those in the military who engage in sexual assault should be "prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It's not acceptable," he continued.

Critics described Obama's remarks as "command influence," potentially affecting the right to a fair trial for accused members of the military.

Hagel is expected as soon as this week to issue new rules that would ensure senior commanders continue to play a role in overseeing the prosecution of sexual assault cases in the military and, at the same time, give alleged victims a potentially greater role in how cases are resolved, according to a Pentagon official.

The announcement is likely to include a decision that a command's most senior generals or admirals be notified automatically of sexual-assault charges, the official said.

The decision will likely displease some members of Congress, including certain women in the Senate who have been pushing without success to remove the chain of command from the prosecution of sex assault.

They cite potential conflicts of interest for commanders who may know both the accuser and the suspect and want independent military prosecutors to assume the authority.

But senior military leaders argue that reducing a commander's power in such cases would harm his or her ability to lead effectively.

Hagel's announcement is not expected to deal with that issue specifically.

He ordered Pentagon lawyers in April to propose legislation that would eliminate the ability of commanders overseeing courts-martial -- known as the convening authority -- to change the findings of those trials.

In an apparent compromise in June, the Senate Armed Services Committee defeated a proposal that would have diminished the role of commanders in sex cases, and instead approved a measure that would require a higher-level military review of cases that prosecutors opt not to pursue.

The full Senate has yet to consider the proposal as part of a larger defense bill.

Recent figures show an increased in reported cases; high-profile incidents have involved officers in the Air Force and the Army and midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The new rules also may include ordering the services to establish programs to ensure alleged victims are more fully represented throughout the judicial process. The Air Force has conducted a similar test program for several months.

Hagel is also expected to ask the Pentagon's inspector general, a watchdog, to review closed cases on a regular basis to determine whether they were adequately handled.

CNN's Barbara Starr contributed to this report


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