WASHINGTON – In a highly unusual move to blunt the legal impact of the president’s comments on military sexual assaults, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is ordering his top leaders to be sure to only base their judicial decisions on facts and their own independent judgment.
The one-page memo tells the military that even though senior U.S. leaders may openly condemn sexual assault, drug abuse, hazing and other crimes, such comments are not intended to sway the outcome of any particular case.
In early May, as high-profile incidents of sexual assault in the military spiked, President Barack Obama – the nation’s commander in chief – declared he had no tolerance for the matter.
“I don’t want just more speeches or awareness programs or training but, ultimately, folks look the other way,” he said. “If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable – prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period.”
Obama’s remarks have already affected the outcome in some cases, including the decision by a judge in South Carolina to dismiss sexual assault charges against a soldier. Defense lawyers have argued that the president’s remarks amounted to unlawful command influence on the cases.
The memo’s disclosure comes as the Pentagon on Thursday released additional steps to increase accountability of commanders reviewing sexual assault cases and to improve support for victims of the crimes.