Add anti-sexual assault measures to ‘skinny’ NDAA
This Veterans Day, America is still fighting the longest war in its history. Eighteen years have passed since we went to war in Afghanistan. This will undoubtedly be on the nation’s mind today as we honor those who have served. But there’s a battle the U.S. has been waging for longer: the fight against military sexual assault. Today, we should also reflect on that. And Congress should fight back in earnest. It should start by passing vital reforms trapped in the stalled National Defense Authorization Act.
Though the military’s sexual assault problem only hit mainstream consciousness in the past decade or so, it’s far from new. Research documents military sexual trauma going back to World War II, when the number of women in uniform increased to more than 400,000. Over time, it has gotten worse. Between 2016 and 2018, for instance, sexual assault in the military increased by almost 38 percent. In human terms, this means 20,500 service members were assaulted last year.
As the public’s awareness of this crisis has increased, so has Congress’. And one of Congress’ most powerful tools for responding is the NDAA. Congress has a strong track record with the NDAA — it’s been signed into law for almost 60 years running. In recent years, it has contained critical sexual assault provisions. Last year the NDAA established procedures for expedited transfers for victims, required data on retaliation against victims, and made domestic violence a crime under military law.
This year’s NDAA is likewise poised to make powerful changes. Both the Senate and House versions would create a “Safe to Report” policy. This program would ensure victims aren’t deterred from reporting assault for fear the prosecution will turn on them if they committed minor misconduct. This could help turn the high level of non-reporting on its head. Last year, almost 80 percent of victims didn’t report their assaults.
The current NDAA drafts also propose training Special Victims’ Counsel on civilian criminal processes, so they can give informed advice to victims on which jurisdiction to choose. Civilian and military prosecutions vary widely. As a result, forum selection can determine whether justice is served.
Importantly, this year’s NDAA could require that commanders keep victims informed of every key development in the military’s investigation and prosecution of their case. In addition, the House has proposed the creation of an independent sexual assault prosecutor for the service academies. This would help tackle any bias in prosecutorial decision-making.
These are much needed reforms. But with the end of the legislative calendar fast approaching, they hit a big snag. Instead of reconciling their two versions of the NDAA, the Senate and the House came to a stalemate over President Donald Trump’s border wall. The House version of the NDAA would ban use of Pentagon funds for the wall. The Senate version, in contrast, would replenish the billions of dollars Trump has already taken from military construction funds for the wall.
In response to this impasse, Senate Armed Services Chairman Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., came up with a backup plan. At the end of October, he released a “skinny” version of the NDAA — the “Essential National Security Authorities Act for Fiscal Year 2020” — which would renew authorities set to expire at the end of the year. This would ensure that military construction projects and bonus pay for service members, among other things, don’t get interrupted if Congress fails to timely pass a full version of the NDAA.
But the skinny bill’s list of “essentials” has a conspicuous gap. It’s silent on military sexual assault. This means that if the Senate and House keep fighting over the border wall, as is likely, and Inhofe’s skinny bill is all the compromise Congress can muster, sexual assault victims will be left behind. They’ll have to wait until the Senate and House can come to an agreement on the wall. They shouldn’t hold their breath.
This Veterans Day, let’s honor those who serve by stop holding them hostage to politics. With no end to the infighting over the border wall in sight, Congress should create another “skinny” NDAA. This time, with sexual assault reforms. Whatever you think about Trump’s wall, we can all agree that military sexual assault must stop.
Rose Carmen Goldberg is a lecturer at University of California, Berkeley School of Law who represented military sexual assault survivors at Swords to Plowshares, a veterans rights organization.