By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Defense Secretary Leon Panetta proposed new action on Monday to crack down on sexual assault in the military, seeking to boost prosecution of the crime and send a signal that the Pentagon aims to confront what has become a persistent problem.
Panetta, after a meeting with lawmakers on Capitol Hill, said he would take steps to ensure that sexual assault cases are pushed higher up the chain of command for review and would try to establish special victims units in each of the military services to handle the offenses.
"The most important thing we can do is prosecute the offenders," Panetta said. "If we can do that, then we can begin to deal with this issue ... but more importantly send a signal that this is not a problem that we're going to ignore in the United States military."
General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, appeared with Panetta and endorsed the measures he proposed to lawmakers working on the issue, saying they would help address the problem.
"The crime of sexual assault erodes the very fabric of our profession," Dempsey said. "Our profession is built on trust and this particular crime erodes that trust. We've been hard at it for some years trying to make a difference and we haven't been able to make a difference."
Representative Jackie Speier, an outspoken critic of the Pentagon's handling of the issue, welcomed Panetta's commitment to trying to fix the problem but expressed skepticism that sexual assaults could be curbed without more radical steps.
Speier favors 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.
"You can't fix the system if you're not going to change the culture, maximize prosecutions and take it out of the chain of command," she said after the meeting with Panetta and other lawmakers.
Panetta's proposals would keep sexual assault cases within the chain of command but would ensure they were seen at a higher level, at a minimum by an officer at the rank of colonel with the power to call a special court-martial to hear the charges.
He also recommended members of the National Guard and Reserves be allowed to remain on duty after they are sexually assaulted so they can obtain treatment and support. Currently they are removed from active duty and lose those benefits.
Panetta's announcement followed the release last Friday of the Pentagon's annual report on sexual assault in the military, which showed the number of cases reported to military authorities in 2011 rose to 3,192, a 1 percent increase over the 3,158 reported in 2010.
Speier said the data showed that commander-initiated actions in sexual assault cases were down 23 percent, courts-martial were down 8 percent and convictions were down 22 percent between 2010 and 2011.
"So it's going in the wrong direction," she said.
While Panetta can force sexual assault cases to be heard higher up the chain of command, he needs congressional action to take the other steps he proposed.
Lawmakers said they were working to ensure the annual defense policy and spending bill - the National Defense Authorization Act - would include language for the steps Panetta requested, but Speier said she would press for her own proposals.
(Reporting by David Alexander; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)