WASHINGTON — A Northern California congresswoman is deploying a mix of old and new political techniques in an aggressive effort to change how the military handles sex crimes.
The concerted campaign by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, aims to remove military sex crimes investigations and prosecutions from the standard chain of command. Even if it falls short, the campaign already is a case study in how 21st century political momentum is built.
"This silent epidemic is over," Speier said of military sexual assault Thursday.
This week, Speier introduced a bill that would assign all military sexual assault cases to a new Sexual Assault Oversight and Response Office. Another new Pentagon office would oversee all sexual assault-related prosecutions.
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Speier says the new bureaucracy is necessary for sexual assault-related cases because the current system is "woefully inadequate" and overly influenced by the chain of command.
"Men and women who have been sexually assaulted in the military have come to realize that 'military justice' is an oxymoron," Speier said at a crowded news conference.
The military reported receiving 3,158 allegations of sexual assault in Fiscal Year 2010. Many cases were dropped for lack of evidence or because the alleged victim refused to cooperate. Other cases were carried over to the following year.
Of allegations filed and resolved in 2010, courts-martial or administrative disciplinary actions were initiated in 468 cases, the Defense Department reported.
Legislatively speaking, the creation of a new military justice bureaucracy unique to sexual assault crimes may be a long shot. A 176-page Pentagon task force report on sexual assault in the military completed in December 2009 didn't mention the concept, nor has the non-partisan Government Accountability Office in its recent studies.
Speier did not offer a cost estimate for establishing the new system.
Still, the idea is appealing in some circles. Within a few hours, Speier secured 41 House co-sponsors, including Rep. Doris Matsui, D-Sacramento, and 11 others from California. So far, all are Democrats.
The bill introduction Wednesday and the accompanying news conference Thursday, in turn, punctuated a campaign Speier began last spring. It has taken several turns, and tapped several experienced California political operators along the way.
Following discussions with Speier, long-time human-rights activist Nancy J. Parrish earlier this year founded a non-profit organization called Protect Our Defenders. Parrish previously chaired Speier's unsuccessful 2006 campaign for lieutenant governor.
The organization's online media boss, Brian Purchia, formerly served as new media director for then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom. Its web site includes videos of sexual assault victims recounting their experiences, as well as an online petition.
"We're trying to build momentum from the ground up," Parrish said.
More than a dozen men and women who say they were sexually assaulted in the military joined Speier and Parrish at the news conference Thursday. Some, like 30-year-old Marine veteran Stephanie B. Schroeder, also are pursuing a class-action lawsuit against Pentagon officials for allegedly failing to protect servicemen and women.
"I was told, 'You had sex and then you changed your mind,'" Schroeder, who said she was raped in a bathroom by a fellow Marine, recalled Thursday.
A federal judge in Northern Virginia on Friday will consider the Pentagon's request to dismiss the lawsuit.
Besides working closely with Protect Our Defenders, Speier last spring began delivering weekly House floor speeches recounting military sexual assault allegations. This week, leading up to her bill introduction, she delivered her 12th. She also has talked with the likes of Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, with whom she recently dined at the Pentagon.
Neither the Pentagon nor Panetta, though, has taken a public position on the new bill.
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