Amid recent reports of sexual misconduct by senior U.S. military leaders, no more than 1 percent of generals in the American armed forces have been accused of improper sexual relationships or sexual misconduct, Pentagon officials said at a congressional hearing Wednesday.
“This small fraction of senior leaders does not represent the honorable service and character of the entire General Officer Corps,” Army Inspector General Lt. Gen. David Quantock said.
Rep. Jackie Speier, the top Democrat on the House military personnel subcommittee, cited multiple instances of alleged misconduct and questioned why more severe punishment isn’t handed out to figures like Maj. Gen. Ralph Baker, who was accused of sexually assaulting a female adviser while intoxicated in 2013.
“One of the core tenets of military service in our country is that no one is above the law,” Speier said. “But there is a phrase in the military that goes like this: ‘Different spanks for different ranks.'”
Quantock disputed that claim, saying senior officers are punished more harshly in substantiated instances of misconduct because leaders are held to a higher standard. Such punishments often involve a demotion, substantial reductions in pensions and a letter of reprimand, he said.
“I spent 27 years coming up the chain just like everybody else, and I can tell you we crush general officers for this kind of offense,” Quantock said. “And should they be crushed? Absolutely.”
In her remarks, Speier also cited past accusations against Maj. Gen. John Custer, Gen. Arthur Lichte and Maj. Gen. David Haight.
Quantock noted that there are few allegations against general officers. Last year, there were no substantiated claims of sexual harassment and eight substantiated claims of inappropriate sexual relationships, he said. Since 2013, only four substantiated claims against senior leaders have been reported, according to Defense Department data.
The head of the Service Women’s Action Network, a female veterans’ advocacy group, said that the low numbers are likely because of a reluctance to report harassment against powerful people.
“We hear from service women all the time that they’re unlikely to report incidents of sexual assault and harassment against general officers,” SWAN CEO Lydia Watts said. “We are confident that the low numbers are not an indicator of some kind of success on the part of the DOD — we assert it’s actually a flaw in the system.”
Watts said fear of retaliation is the main reason female soldiers wouldn’t report sex assaults or harassment, which Pentagon data supports. The Defense Department found that in 2016, six in 10 female soldiers who reported misconduct experienced retaliation. In some cases, she said, this reality is compounded by the fact that a female soldier may have been assaulted by her direct supervisor — and in that case, she has to report her complaint to her assailant.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced a measure in November that would put the decision of whether to move forward with a complaint in the hands of military prosecutors rather than unit commanders. The bill has not yet received a vote in either the House or Senate.
“We need to take the prosecution of military sexual assault and other violent felonies out of the chain of command now, put it in the hands of independent military prosecutors who know what they are doing, who are trained to prosecute these crimes,” Gillibrand said at a news conference about the bill last year.
In the meantime, Defense Department Principal Inspector General Glenn Fine said the Pentagon is taking several steps to improve the disciplinary process for misconduct. The department, Fine said, is developing a standardized case management system for all types of misconduct, which would create uniform processes and speed transmittal and storage of investigative data.
Fine also said the Pentagon will continue publicizing certain substantiated instances of misconduct.
Speier noted, though, that not all the cases she cited in her opening remarks were made public until reporters discovered them through Freedom of Information Act requests, which she said is particularly frustrating for her as a member of Congress.
“Why is Congress often the last to know?” she asked. “We have oversight responsibilities. You should come to us when you have an issue with a senior officer, so we don’t have to read it in the press to find out.”
Fine testified that every military department could use more personnel to improve the disciplinary process. Though the numbers have improved, Fine said it took the Office of the Inspector General an average of 429 days to complete an investigation of a senior official. He asked the committee for at least 100 more staff members — to bring the total staff to 1700 employees — to help reduce this lag.
“The number of cases has risen, and we take each of them seriously, but we can only do more with less for so long,” Fine said.