By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The number of sexual assaults reported to U.S. military authorities edged up last year, with most involving one member of the armed forces attacking another, the Pentagon said in an annual report released on Friday.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta called the crime "an affront to the basic American values we defend" and said he would announce measures next week during consultations with Congress to try to curb sexual assaults.
"Since taking this office, I've made it one of my top priorities to do everything we can to reduce and prevent sexual assault, to make victims of sexual assault feel secure enough to report this crime without fear of retribution or harm to their career, and to hold the perpetrators appropriately accountable," Panetta said.
The 3,192 sexual assault cases reported to military authorities in 2011 amounted to a 1 percent increase over the 3,158 reported in 2010.
Some 56 percent of the cases involved one service member attacking another, 26 percent a member of the military attacking a civilian, 6 percent a civilian attacking a service member and 12 percent an unidentified person attacking a service member, the report said.
Despite an increased effort by authorities to address the problem and highlight the issue with the annual report, figures on sexual assaults in the military have remained largely unchanged in recent years.
Since becoming defense secretary last year, Panetta has taken a number of steps to curb sexual assaults and improve the military's response to them, including expanded legal assistance, additional care and support for victims, and more funding to support investigators and provide training.
The impact of the steps taken by Panetta is not yet clear because the actions were taken at the end of the reporting period for the data included in the report released on Friday.
U.S. Representative Jackie Speier, an outspoken critic of the military's handling of sexual assault cases, said the report showed "regrettably, more of the same," with cases up and prosecutions and punishments down.
"All of the important numbers are going in the wrong direction," said Speier, who advocates taking sexual assault cases out of the hands of the military's chain of command and putting them under the jurisdiction of a special office made up of military and civilian experts.
"This report shows that prevention classes and sensitivity training are not enough to solve the problem of rape and sexual assault in the military," she said.
AGE, RANK, ALCOHOL
Reporting of sexual assaults in the military is divided into two groups: restricted cases, which remain confidential and about which little information is available, and unrestricted cases, which are investigated and prosecuted through normal military channels.
Of the 2,439 unrestricted reports of sexual assault, 31 percent were charges of rape, 30 percent charges of aggravated sexual assault and 25 percent allegations of wrongful sexual contact. The remaining allegations involved a range of other sexual crimes.
The victims of sexual assaults tend to be women under age 25 in the lower ranks of the service, according to figures from the unrestricted reports. About 12 percent of the victims have been male, versus 88 percent female.
Assailants are overwhelmingly male - 89 percent. Two percent are listed as female and 9 percent are categorized as unidentified.
The report said data indicates that excessive drinking is linked to many cases. The military has focused much of its effort to reduce assaults on promoting responsible alcohol use.
(Editing by Xavier Briand and Lisa Shumaker)