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Rep. Niki Tsongas presses Defense Secretary Gates on Sexual Assault in the Military

Rep. Niki Tsongas released the following statement:

WASHINGTON, DC – February 16, 2011 – The House Armed Services Committee today held a hearing to examine the Pentagon’s budget request for the coming fiscal year which featured testimony from Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen. Fifth District Congresswoman Niki Tsongas, a member of the Committee who is leading efforts to prevent sexual assault in the military and better protect servicemembers who have been victims of sexual assault, pressed Secretary Gates on the issue of sexual assault in the military and the Pentagon’s attempts to address it.

Tsongas asked the Secretary why the Department of Defense does not grant privileged communication between victims of sexual assault and their advocates or attorney’s saying, “In 2010, there were 3,230 reported sexual assaults in the military. But by the Pentagon’s own estimate, as few as 10 percent of sexual assaults are reported. The VA estimates that 1 in 3 women veterans report experiencing some form of military sexual trauma. The FY 2011 National Defense Authorization Act required that the Department look into the feasibility of providing a military lawyer to all victims of sexual assault. While this is a good first step, I was disappointed that provisions contained which guarantees all victims the right to legal counsel and protects the confidentiality of conversations between victims and Victim Advocates, were not included in the final version of the FY 2011 NDAA. We would be shocked if conversations between a client and their attorney or advocate were not privileged in the civilian world, and similar rights must be afforded to servicemembers who may be the victim of a crime. Why would the Department resist such a common-sense measures?”

Secretary Gates responded by saying, “I hadn’t realized that the Department had resisted it and I must say, these things sound to me like reasonable actions, so I will take out of this hearing the charge to look into, if we opposed it, why we opposed it, and why we shouldn’t go forward on our own without legislative action.”

This statement by Secretary Gates represents a potential major breakthrough in the effort to provide victims of sexual assault in the military with better representation and support. Last year, the House approved bipartisan legislation, authored by Congresswoman Tsongas and Congressman Michael Turner (R-OH) which would have granted victims of sexual assault the right to legal counsel as well as the right to keep conversations between the victim and Victim Advocates privileged. Tsongas and Turner will be reintroducing their bill entitled the Defense Sexual Trauma Oversight and Good Governance Act (Defense STRONG Act) in the coming weeks.

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