By David Alexander and Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A rash of scandals discrediting the U.S. military's efforts to stamp out sexual assault is putting unprecedented pressure on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to consider options that once appeared off limits to address sex crimes in the armed forces.
On Tuesday, the military disclosed that another one of its advocates for victims of sexual assault was himself being accused of sex crimes, including allegations linking him to prostitution.
Hagel, in his initial response, ordered the retraining and recertification of U.S. military personnel whose job it is to work to prevent sexual assault and assist the victims. But the Pentagon made clear Wednesday that Hagel is open to further actions.
But the latest scandal may have been the last straw for Congress. Lawmakers have issued a string of statements vowing legislative action, such as setting job requirements for people who work with sexual assault victims.
Other lawmakers and advocacy groups are calling for changes to military law that would allow prosecution of sex crimes to be handled by a group of experts outside the victim's direct chain of command.
"The military has made it clear that it cannot handle this problem alone and it is time for decisive action by Congress," said Adam Smith, the ranking Democrat on the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee.
He and other lawmakers on the Senate and House panels that oversee the Pentagon have vowed to use this year's annual defense policy bill to address the sexual assault problem.
Democratic Senators Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota introduced a bill on Wednesday to force Hagel to take action to strengthen sexual assault prevention programs, including improving the training and qualifications of those who work in those jobs.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, is planning to introduce legislation on Thursday that would remove responsibility for prosecution of sex crimes out of the military's chain of command.
"Saying the military has a cultural problem in regard to sexual assault and sexual misconduct is a glaring understatement," said Representative Niki Tsongas, a Democrat from Massachusetts. "At worst, this is a deep-rooted and widespread acceptance of unprofessional, inappropriate and criminal behavior."
The pressure for action comes after department's annual report on sexual assault in the military released last week found that unwanted sexual contact complaints involving military personnel jumped 37 percent, to 26,000 in 2012 from 19,000 the previous year.
The report came a day after the officer in charge of the Air Force sexual assault prevention office was charged with groping a woman while drunk in a parking lot not far from the Pentagon. And on Tuesday, the Army revealed a sergeant in the sexual assault prevention office at Fort Hood was under investigation.
The pressure for action has put the Pentagon on the defensive. Asked whether retraining and recertifying people who assist sexual assault victims was a sufficient response, Hagel's spokesman George Little said training was "foundational" and was accompanied by other actions.
"We're not focused solely on PowerPoint slides," Little told reporters. "We're focused on taking real steps that we believe, in combination, can at least help advance the ball on progress."
He said the retraining effort was not necessarily limited to recruiting officers and those who help sexual assault victims, but could be expanded to other job classifications as well.
And while Hagel last week publicly opposed removing responsibility for sex crimes from the military chain of command, Pentagon officials since then have emphasized his willingness to be flexible and work with members of Congress.
"He is open to all options. I wouldn't want to prejudge where he might land ultimately, but he wants to work closely with the United States Congress to see what ideas they have to try to address this problem," Little said.
(Reporting by Phil Stewart and David Alexander; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)