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Why Pentagon's progress against sexual assault is so slow

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Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has acknowledged the systemic problems. "The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders," he said. "If we can do that, then we can begin to deal with this issue."

Respondents to the 2011 Air Force survey agreed. "Air Force personnel are trained ad nauseam on sexual assault, prevention, and response," read one response. "The perpetrators of sexual assault, however, will continue their behavior unless they fear significant consequences."

Noted another, "Harsh consequences for offenders is the best way to act as a preventative measure."

Part of that includes increasing the penalties for sexual assault, which are beginning to inch up. The number of courts-martial for sexual assault cases has also increased, from 410 in 2009 to 489 in 2011.

A witch hunt?

Yet some within the military fear the pressure to increase prosecutions of sexual assault could result in a witch hunt mentality.

"What is the 'right' prosecution rate? 20 percent? 40 percent?" says James Russell III, associate director of the Air Force's Military Justice Division.

Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Jonathan Greenert also worried about pressure from Congress that would "take the reconciliation – litigation if you will – necessary for sexual assault out of our hands."

But he acknowledged that the low prosecution rates were the result of "some 'not the best' investigations.' "

To that end, in April Mr. Panetta announced a new special victims unit that will help better train military lawyers.

"We hope that it will help the process of prosecuting be stronger," says a congressional staffer. "These are places where the Pentagon prosecution hasn't been willing to go in the past."

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