Will the Media Give Leon Panetta the Same Pass Provided to Robert Gates on the Military’s Rape Epidemic?

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CommonDreams.org

Will the Media Give Leon Panetta the Same Pass Provided to Robert Gates on the Military’s Rape Epidemic?

As Secretary Robert Gates makes his final rounds of adulatory media rounds discussing the U.S.’s ongoing wars around the world, it is truly remarkable and sadly unsurprising that no one in the media has questioned Secretary Gates about the lawsuit filed against him and former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for their failure to address to the military’s ongoing and shocking rape and sexual assault epidemic affecting female and male servicemembers.  The lawsuit has been spearheaded by the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN). 

Similarly, during Rumsfeld’s victory lap/book media tour not a single journalist questioned him about the allegations detailed in the lawsuit filed against the Pentagon on February 15, 2011.  Fifteen female and two male military veterans filed a class action lawsuit against Gates and Rumsfeld.  These veterans have charged Gates and Rumsfeld with the wholesale and systematic failure to protect servicemembers from being oftentimes repeatedly raped and sexually assaulted while serving in the military; and with a failure to investigate and subsequently prosecute and punish perpetrators.  Rapes and sexual assaults are ignored and if not ignored, so callously prosecuted within the Military Code of Justice as to suggest that rape is nothing more than a minor infraction deserving of little punishment, if any.  A system has been set up to hide evidence, encourage victims to recant, and when victims attempt to receive any semblance of justice they are confronted with retaliation that includes demotions, harassment, and shockingly further rapes and sexual assaults as punishment.  Victims are warned to stay quiet or face dire consequences.

The media now has an opportunity to confront and question the next Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, who was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.  Will the media give him a pass too?  Will the media continue to ignore those in Congress that have been addressing the issue?  On June 9thSenator Claire McCaskill (D-MO) questioned Panetta about the rape and sexual assault crisis – but where was the media coverage?  Oh, that’s right the media frenzy over Representative Weiner’s “crisis” was blanketing the airwaves.  Panetta’s boiler plate “zero tolerance” policy response to Senator McCaskill needs to be questioned as well as the ongoing narrative that women are the only victims of sexual violence in the military. 

CBS News reported last week that a recently released report from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) determined “[s]exual assault investigations and related training for investigators are not a high priority for the Department of Defense Inspector General's Office…the DOD IG's office has not developed a policy and sufficiently overseen sexual assault investigations conducted by the various DOD criminal investigation organizations.  The report also accuses the office of not providing adequate training for sexual assault investigators.”  Specifically, the GAO “…found no evidence of Inspector General oversight at the service level for any of the 2,594 sexual assault investigations that DOD reported the services completed in fiscal year 2010.  Without a policy and plan for conducting oversight, the Inspector General’s Office will remain limited in its ability to help ensure consistency and accountability, and that training is being conducted in the most effective manner.” SWAN’s executive director Anu Bhagwati explained that training for sexual assault investigators “…focuses on poster campaigns.  The training and education is very weak…Our tax dollars are supporting a small department that's not even headed by a general.  Military leadership doesn't understand that rape is the second most violent crime after murder.  Rape is a matter of power."  Clearly, the Department of Defense (DOD) does not believe this crisis is a priority and absent focused media attention putting DOD’s feet to the fire, the DOD has little incentive to facilitate urgently needed reform. 

On June 2nd Representative Louise Laughter (D-NY) and Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) “…introduced the Military Access to Reproductive Care and Health Act (MARCH)… a bill that would authorize federally-funded abortions for women in the military who have been impregnated as the result of rape…[and]…would also allow servicewomen to use private funds to access abortion services at U.S. military facilities…”  The bill is pending action in the House Committee on Armed Services and currently has 39 cosponsors.  But once again, where was the coverage of the MARCH Act?    

After the media’s initial and immediate reaction to the February lawsuit, which lasted only a few days, the story has been largely ignored ever since.  In fact, Rumsfeld began his media book tour only one month after the filing of the lawsuit and he was not asked a single question about the devastation within our military or the enduring effects of military sexual trauma disabling servicemembers across the country.  Shockingly, even the esteemed New York Times op-ed columnist Nicholas Kristof completely ignored the crisis in his June 15th op-ed.  While rightly praising the military for addressing issues such as universal health care, income inequality, and educational opportunities, he also remarked, “[t]he military is innately hierarchical, yet it nurtures a camaraderie in part because the military looks after its employees…It’s also true that the military remains often unwelcoming to gays and lesbians and is conflicted about women as well.”  For sexual violence victims the military certainly has not looked after their needs.  Moreover, the military’s treatment of sexual violence victims goes far beyond “unwelcoming” – it remains nothing less than a national disgrace. 

Lawrence J. Korb, an assistant secretary of defense from 1981 to 1985 and a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, responded to Mr. Kristof’s op-ed in the New York Times stating, “Nicholas D. Kristof rightly lauds the many ways in which the United States military provides vital services to our men and women in uniform.  But the lack of assistance available to military women who are the victims of sexual assault is harrowing.” 

On April 17th Katie Couric covered a similar story regarding an epidemic of sexual violence on college campuses on 60 Minutes.  Almost one month later Couric interviewed Secretary Gates on 60 Minutes in a segment titled, Robert Gates: The soldiers’ secretary.  Though the lengthy interview, which ran into the next day on the CBS Evening News, covered varied criticism leveled at the Pentagon regarding spending, bloat, and bureaucracy that criticism was filtered through Secretary Gates – wherein he claimed his top priority is and has always been the men and women in uniform.  He told Couric that priority is often neglected because of the immense Pentagon bureaucracy.  However, Couric never discussed the lawsuit filed against him by his own servicemembers back in February.  Interestingly, Couric did cover the military sexual violence crisis back in March 2009 where she noted “[t]his month, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called for a military-wide ‘review of the training and experience' of investigators and prosecutors for sexual assault cases.”  Couric also noted in March 2009, “[t]he military is trying to reduce the stigma through increased awareness, education and guaranteeing confidentiality to victims reporting such crimes.”   

The Daily Beast also covered the February 15th filing of the lawsuit in an article titled “Gates, Rumsfeld Sued Over U.S. Military's Rape Epidemic: A landmark lawsuit filed Tuesday against the Defense secretary and his predecessor alleges that the military created a culture where violence against women was tolerated.”  By contrast, there is no mention of the fact that Secretary Gates is being sued by his own servicemembers in the Daily Beast’s June 21stexit interview” with Gates. 

Some members of the House of Representatives have stood on the House floor giving impassioned speeches about this rape and sexual assault epidemic.  Notably, Representative Jackie Speier (D-CA) has delivered numerous speeches questioning the Pentagon’s refusal to answer questions in any substantive manner and the concomitant silence from the White House.  You can listen to some of those speeches on YouTube here, and here.  Representative Speier was demanding more than “lip service” from the White House during a House floor speech on April 6thand said Congress was an “accomplice” because Congress has failed to address the ongoing epidemic.  Unsurprisingly, there was no tangible media coverage beyond the San Francisco Chronicle publishing her remarkable op-ed on April 17th

And here again is a YouTube clip from Representative Niki Tsongas at an April 13th press conference addressing the Sexual Trauma Response, Oversight, and Good Governance (STRONG) Act.  Mind you this was a press conference but again – no tangible media coverage.  The Washington Post reported that the STRONG Act “…has been incorporated in the 2012 defense authorization bill being considered this week in the House.  Similar legislation was introduced in the Senate last week by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and has been sent to the Senate Armed Services Committee.”  Notably, the May 23rdWashington Post article makes no mention of the fact that a lawsuit is pending against Secretary Gates and former Secretary Rumsfeld. 

On May 26th SWAN issued a press release praising the House of Representatives for passing H.R. 1540, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) which “…would provide unprecedented protections for survivors of military rape and sexual assault.”  Again, media silence on the crisis and how the NDAA includes “…measures that would ensure confidentiality between victims and victim advocates, access to appropriate legal services for victims and expedited consideration for transfers by victims under humanitarian guidelines.  The bill would also replace the current head of the DOD's sexual assault response department with a General officer.” 

And then there’s the White House.  On May 2nd Representative Bruce Braley (D-Iowa) wrote a letter to the President Obama urging him to address the military rape crisis, encouraging him to “…look at the policies in place within the Department of Defense and work to change the culture that continues to be unable to address these challenges to achieve better equality for all of our service members.”  He also spoke out about the crisis on the House floor on May 4th; here’s the YouTube clip. 

April was proclaimed National Sexual Assault Awareness and Prevention Monthby President Obama.  However, despite White House efforts to address a similar rape and sexual assault epidemic plaguing college campuses across the country, the White House was silent about the military crisis.  This is indeed a crisis that is only getting worse with each passing year, and it is not being addressed by the White House, by the Pentagon, and certainly not by the media.

SWAN executive director Anu Bhagwati addresses the need for leadership from Leon Panetta in a June 17th op-ed for the Hill’s Congress blog stating:

[i]f the Senate does indeed approve Mr. Panetta’s nomination, he would do well to learn from the shortcomings of both of his predecessors, former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and current Defense Secretary Robert Gates, both of whom are defendants in a federal lawsuit that alleges they violated the constitutional rights of16 servicemembers by failing to prevent and prosecute their rapes…This crisis, nothing short of an epidemic, can be eliminated.  But it will require real leadership, and some bold first steps.  It is up to Mr. Panetta if he wants to follow in his predecessors’ footsteps, or make the radical changes necessary to transform the military…Defense Department leaders have not yet dared to remove the institutional barriers to protecting our nation’s finest, to the detriment of many in our armed forces.  Mr. Panetta simply requires the courage to act.  In his new role, Mr. Panetta must begin by demanding commander accountability, reforming the prosecution and court martial conviction process, and providing protection for victims.

I agree wholeheartedly that Mr. Panetta has a critical decision to make regarding the genuine leadership that is so urgently needed to confront this sexual violence crisis.  But it is also the media’s responsibility to stop ignoring the fact that this lawsuit exists; ignoring the fact that Secretary Gates and former Secretary Rumsfeld are the named defendants; and ignoring the fact that the ongoing silence from the White House has been nothing less than deafening. 

So here’s an assignment for everyone in the media who may be fortunate enough in the coming days to interview Robert Gates: read the entire lawsuit (the details are truly horrifying) and ask Secretary Gates to address the allegations contained in the lawsuit.  And then the next time you have the chance to chat with incoming Defense Secretary Leon Panetta – ask him what he plans to do to begin addressing this crisis – and when both of these gentlemen provide you with same old boiler plate responses – the same “lip service” that Representative Speier has deplored time and again, demand more! 

The women and men that have been victimized and are currently being victimized, by not only the perpetrators of these violent crimes but also by the military they serve with unparalleled distinction, deserve an answer; and so does every single American that has promised to stand with these brave women and men to honor their service and their sacrifice.  

Antoinette Bonsignore

Antoinette Bonsignore, J.D., is a Seattle based workers’ rights advocate most recently focused on worker compensation issues.  She is a regular blogger for NARAL Pro-Choice WA and has blogged for RH Reality Check and the National Women’s Political Caucus of WA.  She lives in Redmond, WA.

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