WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Leon Panetta on Monday outlined a handful of new initiatives he said will fundamentally change the way the military deals with sexual assaults, just days after the Pentagon released its annual report on sexual assaults involving servicemembers.

Sexual assault is “a violation of everything that the military stands for,” Panetta said in a press conference after a closed-door discussion with lawmakers on Capitol Hill. “We need to do more.”

Among the new initiatives: establishing a “special victims unit” within each service branch for specially trained investigators and prosecutors, allowing Reserve and National Guard members who have been sexually assaulted on active duty to remain on active status to receive treatment, and elevating the disposition authority for the most serious cases to a special court-martial convening authority. That means that in cases of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy and attempts to commit those offenses, the case would be reported to and addressed by at least a colonel or Navy captain.

The change is necessary to ensure cases are not buried at the local unit level, Panetta said.

“All commanders have to exercise good discipline,” he said. “And they need to understand that everyone has the responsibility to deal with these issues.”

Panetta said he plans to make the change in disposition authority through executive action, though other initiatives require congressional action.

“There is no silver bullet when it comes to this issue. But what is required is that everyone, from the secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff all the way down, at every command level, be sensitive to this issue,” Panetta said. “The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders, deal with those who have broken the law and committed this crime.”

Joint Chiefs chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey said sexual assault “erodes the very fabric of our profession.”

“Our profession is built on trust, and this particular crime erodes that trust,” he said.

Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio, co-chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, said the mere presence of Panetta and Dempsey on Capitol Hill for the discussion shows how deeply the Pentagon is involved in trying to change the culture.

Rep. Loretta Sanchez, D-Calif., chairwoman of the Caucus on Women in the Military, agreed.

When she came to Congress in 1997, she said, the top brass didn’t see sexual assault as a problem. To have Panetta and Dempsey say they want to do something about it is in itself a big change in the culture, she said.

Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., also co-chair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, said the initiatives Panetta outlined show a renewed commitment in effecting change.

“Despite all the good intentions and the good programs [in the past] ... there’s still much that remains to be done,” she said.

A report released Friday afternoon showed 3,192 reports of sexual assaults involving servicemembers in fiscal 2011 — a 1 percent increase from fiscal 2010. That includes 2,723 servicemembers who reported being victims of sexual assault.

Congress and the Pentagon have been working to increase reporting of sexual assaults, but it is still too soon for the data to show if they’ve been successful, Tsongas said.

Turner said the data is “imperfect,” but noted the DOD acknowledges the problem.

“It is the beginning of our getting a grasp on how this happens, how frequently it happens, so we can get to prevention, prosecution and protection,” he said.

Twitter: @jhlad

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