By Molly O'Toole
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - No evidence exists that the Department of Defense office mandated to oversee military sexual assault investigations does so, according to a Government Accountability Office report.
"The take-aways are that the DOD should step it up and fulfill their oversight responsibilities," Brenda Farrell, the GAO Director of Defense Capabilities and Management told Reuters on Thursday.
In 2005, the DOD established the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Program (SAPR) to address military sexual assault, after studies found such assaults were highly under reported.
For fiscal year 2010, 3,158 incidents were reported, a slight decrease from FY2009, but the trend over the prior three years had been an increase in reported cases from when the program was launched.
For the 2,594 completed sexual assault investigations in FY2010, the DOD's Inspector General's Office conducted no oversight according to the study, which Farrell directed.
Though the IG Office has been required by statute since 2006 to create a policy on sexual assault prevention and response, the GAO found that five years later, no such policy exists.
That has resulting in inconsistent development of procedure for investigating sexual assault incidents among the various military services, said the report, released on Wednesday (http://www.gao.gov/products/GAO-11-579?source=ra).
The GAO, a government watchdog body, also found no monitoring exists to assure personnel pursuing sexual assault allegations meet competency standards.
DOD Inspector General Gordon Heddell said in a statement emailed to Reuters: "We take the matter of sexual assaults very seriously ... while we concur with the GAO recommendations, we disagree with the characterization that the DoD IG has not performed its responsibilities."
FUNDS FOR TRAINING
In addition to personnel, the DOD allocates funding above the military services' operating budgets toward sexual assault prevention. SAPRO provided the military with nearly $3 million in FY2009 and 2010 to improve training on prosecution of sexual assault cases.
The report stated that such resources are not being used effectively. In examples noted by the GAO, only the Air Force requires its investigators to consult available experts during a sexual assault investigation.
The Army's Criminal Investigation Command will immediately assess a case as founded or unfounded before referring it to the primary steps of the investigation process.
"The (IG Office) has not performed these responsibilities, primarily because it believes it has other, higher priorities," the report states, such as an increase in demand for its services from overseas operations and the government's current budget challenges.
The GAO analyzed DOD and military service policies and procedures relevant to sexual assault, and interviewed senior officials in the DOD and military and civilian lawyers from April 2010 to June 2011.
Some people interviewed for the report said ambiguities in the Uniform Code of Military Justice make such cases more difficult to prosecute and may cause unwarranted acquittals.
"The GAO has been directing the military to improve its handling of sexual assault cases for many years now, and has traditionally met with the same kind of sluggish response we see here," said Professor Helen Benedict of Columbia University, who has written extensively on women in the military and sexual assault.
"I'd like to see the government push for sexual assault cases to be handled in civilian courts ...The military has had long enough to get its act together over sexual assault ... and it's failed."
(Editing by Jerry Norton)