Noting that almost 1 of every 3 members of the military who reported a sexual assault last year also said they faced retaliation, Sen. Mark Warner is introducing a bill today to provide stronger whistleblower protection for victims and others who report assaults.
The protection — similar to what is available to other federal government employees — would also cover sailors, Marines, airmen or soldiers who report nonsexual misdeeds or serious problems.
While recent reports by the Pentagon of a rise in sexual assaults have raised alarms in Congress, Warner said, he's also concerned about repercussions faced by others in the service, including two aviators at Hampton's Joint Base Langley who last year went public with concerns about the F-22 Raptor fighter jet. One of the pilots, who warned that the jet was dangerous because of a faulty oxygen system, has said he faced retaliation for talking about their worries.
"What we're trying to do here is create a culture in the military where, if you see something wrong — whether it's a sexual harassment or you're flying an F-22 that you don't feel is working — you can bring forward that information without fear of retaliation," Warner said Thursday.
The Virginia Democrat's measure is one of several bills being pushed by members of Congress since the Pentagon released the results of an annual survey earlier this month. The report estimated that 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted last year but that only 3,374 cases were reported to authorities.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel promised to more vigorously address the problem, pledging this week to exempt about 500 civilian sexual-assault-prevention employees from departmentwide furloughs.
Other legislative proposals would strip unit commanders of the authority to dismiss major assault complaints, establish an independent council to handle sexual assault cases, and toughen penalties for attackers.
A House bill also addresses stronger whistleblower protection, focusing on victims of sexual assault.
Warner said his bill doesn't seek to reorder the military justice system but is narrowly tailored to protect those who may not come forward about assaults because of fear that they'd harm their careers.
"Our military is made stronger if there's a culture that says, 'If you see something wrong, you ought to be able to report it and not feel you're going to be retaliated against,' " Warner said. "I've got to believe that this will be something that we can work with the Pentagon on."
Under the legislation, senior military officials could not prohibit service members from complaining about retaliation to the Defense Department's inspector general, members of Congress or other government agencies.
An aggrieved service member would have up to a year to report retaliation, rather than the 60 days allowed now.
The legislation would also install stronger reporting requirements to encourage inspectors general, who investigate such cases, to move more quickly.
Although the Inspector General's Office is required to complete investigations in 180 days, a 2012 Government Accountability Office report found that more than two-thirds of cases don't meet that standard, with most taking more than a year.
An inspector general would be required to report the findings to the secretary of the service branch, who would then take corrective action or notify Congress if no action is taken.
The legislation also would make it easier for a whistleblower who suffered retaliation to correct his or her service record — a task that, under current rules, is mostly up to that service member. At present, only 19 percent of those who have suffered reprisals have had their records changed, according to Warner's office.
Under the bill, a service member could request a hearing in which the military would have to provide significant evidence that the action taken against the individual was for some reason other than retaliation.
Debra Katz, a Washington-based attorney and expert in employee protection law, predicted that, without the whistleblower improvements, sexual assaults in the military might decrease temporarily but would rise again as news reports fade.
"You cannot change a culture as entrenched as the military without drawing a clear line in the sand, so when people have the courage and temerity to come forward and report these problems, they know we will protect them," Katz said.