Outgoing Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel unveiled new initiatives Thursday to battle rape and other sexual assaults in the military after the Pentagon released a report showing an 8% increase in reported incidents over the last year.
The 136-page report, an annual assessment, said 62% of sexual assault victims also complained of retaliation from within the military, a figure unchanged from two years ago.
Based on anonymous surveys of service members, the military estimated that 19,000 troops were victims of "unwanted sexual contact," a definition that covered an array of offenses. That tally was down from an estimated 26,000 two years ago, but about the same as in 2010.
The Pentagon has been under intense pressure from Congress to show progress in preventing and prosecuting sex crimes, and the report by the Santa Monica-based Rand Corp. gave ammunition to both sides in the debate.
Hagel, who tendered his resignation last month, cited "indications of real progress" at a Pentagon news conference. "We still have a long way to go," he added.
He issued directives to provide more resources for victims, create a pilot program to boost prevention efforts, and require commanders to do more to stop retaliation.
Lawmakers from both parties have rebuked the Pentagon, and some have argued that military commanders should be stripped of the power to decide on whether or not to prosecute and punish offenders.
Pentagon officials have pushed back, however, and established measures that they said were intended to ensure victims could lodge complaints without fear they will be ostracized in their units, see their careers suffer or see perpetrators protected by the chain of command.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has focused attention on the problem, said Thursday that the Pentagon had not done nearly enough.
"We have heard how the reforms … were going to protect victims, and make retaliation a crime," she said in a statement. "Enough is enough. Last December the president said he would give the military and previous reforms a year to work, and it is clear they have failed in their mission."
Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Hillsborough) said she planned to back legislation that would wrest sexual assault prosecutions out of direct military control. "A hostile culture for survivors remains the rule, not the exception," Speier said.
Pentagon officials said they were encouraged that the number of reported assaults had increased, saying it meant more victims were willing to step forward and report abuses to their superiors. A total of 5,983 men and women reported assaults in the year that ended Sept. 30, up from 5,518 a year earlier.
In a related development, the Navy is investigating allegations that an enlisted sailor aboard a ballistic missile submarine secretly recorded video of female officers while they showered and dressed, according to Navy Times, an independent newspaper. The videos allegedly were distributed to other crew members aboard the Wyoming.
The Navy also said Thursday it was revoking comedian Bill Cosby's title of honorary chief petty officer. Cosby, 77, faces allegations that he drugged and sexually assaulted more than a dozen women. His attorneys have denied the allegations and Cosby has not been charged.
"The Navy is taking this action because allegations against Mr. Cosby are very serious and are in conflict with the Navy's core values of honor, courage and commitment," the Navy said in a statement.
Cosby enlisted in the Navy in 1956 and served for four years as a hospital corpsman before he was honorably discharged in 1960 as a third class petty officer.