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Military commanders to still have role in sex assault prosecutions

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WASHINGTON (CNN) — Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is expected to announce new rules designed to ensure senior commanders continue to play a role in overseeing military sex assault prosecutions while giving victims a potentially greater role in how cases are resolved, according to a Pentagon official.

The announcement expected as soon as this week is likely to include a decision that the most senior generals or admirals in a command be automatically notified of a sexual assault charge, according to the official.

The official declined to be identified because an announcement had not yet been made.

The decision will likely further displease some members of Congress, including certain women in the Senate who have been pushing without success to remove the chain of command from the prosecution of sex assault.

They cite potential conflicts of interest for commanders who may know both the victim and the suspect and want the authority to be assumed by independent military prosecutors.

But senior military leaders argue that reducing power in related cases would harm a commander’s ability to lead effectively.

Hagel’s announcement is not expected to deal with that issue specifically.

He ordered Pentagon lawyers in April to propose legislation that would eliminate the ability of commanders overseeing courts martial — known as the convening authority — to change the findings of those trials.

In an apparent compromise in June, the Senate Armed Services Committee defeated a proposal to dilute the role of commanders in sex cases, approving a measure instead that would require a higher-level military review of cases that prosecutors opt not to pursue.

The full Senate has yet to consider the proposal as part of a larger defense bill.

The new rules to be announced by Hagel come amid new concerns about sex assaults in the military and President Barack Obama’s directive to do more to address it.

Recent figures show an increased rate of reported cases. Recent high-profile incidents have involved officers in the Air Force and the Army and midshipmen at the U.S. Naval Academy.

The new rules also may include ordering the services to establish programs to ensure victims are more fully represented throughout the judicial process. The Air Force has conducted a similar test program for several months.

Hagel is also expected to ask the Pentagon’s inspector general, a watchdog, to review closed cases on a regular basis to make sure they were adequately handled.

The announcement is expected to come in the form of a memo from Hagel to the military services. It is not yet clear when it will all go into effect.