Protect Our Defenders President Col. Don Christensen sent a letter to President Obama, calling on the President to direct an independent investigation into who at the Pentagon is responsible for perpetuating false claims about the military’s handling of sexual assault cases, and calling on White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest to retract dismissive statements he made last week, characterizing findings that the Pentagon had misled Congress as only a “bureaucratic dispute” over the “presentation” of information.
Dear Mr. President,
I am writing to express our dismay over statements made by White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest in response to a question about investigative reports released by the Associated Press (AP) and Protect Our Defenders, which unquestionably show that the Pentagon presented misleading testimony to Congress regarding the military’s handling of sexual assault cases. The testimony and the 93 cases cited by Admiral James Winnefeld in a subsequent letter were presented to support the Pentagon’s opposition to high-profile military justice reform.
On April 26, 2016, Mr. Earnest characterized findings that the Pentagon had misled Congress as only a “bureaucratic dispute” over the “presentation” of information. Mr. Earnest’s dismissive comments demonstrate a shocking lack of knowledge of the facts. Contrary to his mischaracterization, the concern is not over a mere difference of opinion or interpretation. Rather, the Department of Defense’s (DOD) own case files directly contradict Adm. Winnefeld’s testimony and subsequent letter to the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC).
When Admiral Winnefeld testified before the SASC on July 13, 2013, he left members of the Senate with the false impression that commanders were more aggressive than prosecutors in pursuing sexual assault cases. As evidence, he testified that the military reviewed case files from the Army and the Marine Corps and found a number of sexual assault cases (93 in total, according to a letter to the SASC) where commanders “insisted” on prosecuting after local district attorneys “refused” to prosecute. He also claimed that the Army and Marine Corps had achieved conviction rates of 81% and 57% respectively, ostensibly for sexual assault, and these offenders were “no longer walking the street.”
To the contrary, according to the military’s own summaries of 81 Army and Marine Corps cases, investigations by Protect Our Defenders and the AP found the following:
- In two-thirds of cases, the defendant was never accused of sexual assault, civilian prosecutors did not decline the case, or the military chose not to prosecute the offender for sexual assault.
- The Army and Marine Corps had conviction rates of only 52% and 33%, respectively, for sexual assault—much lower than claimed.
- Sentences were often shockingly light. 24% of convicted offenders received a year of less of jail time, with the most lenient sentence (30 days confinement) going to a Major who sexually abused a child.
- Several cases that military records described as “declined” were, in fact, deferred due to jurisdictional issues or never declined in the first place.
- There was no indication that any commander ever “insisted” a case go forward over the objection of a military prosecutor or his Staff Judge Advocate.
The Pentagon’s misleading testimony took place directly before a critical debate on military justice reform and was used to oppose legislation giving military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the authority to decide whether to prosecute felony level crimes, including sexual assault cases. The DOD’s blatant use of false information to influence a Congressional debate over how sexual assault cases are prosecuted should be cause for alarm.
Sexual harassment and assault in the military remain at epidemic proportions and are unchanged from 2010 levels. According to the DOD, 62% of female victims who report rape or sexual assault suffer retaliation, with the majority of these women facing reprisal from their superiors and commanders.
For Mr. Earnest to afford such little consideration to the gravity of the Pentagon’s deception is an affront to survivors, Congress, and the brave men and women who serve our country. The Press Secretary should retract his statement.
Further, the White House should respond affirmatively to the bipartisan request for an independent investigation into who within the Pentagon is responsible for the false testimony and how such clearly erroneous information was provided to Congress.
Don Christensen, Col, USAF (Ret)
Former Air Force Chief Prosecutor
President, Protect Our Defenders
CC: Josh Earnest