Magazine article The News Media and the Law (Online)

Sexual Assault and Military Secrecy

Magazine article The News Media and the Law (Online)

Sexual Assault and Military Secrecy

Article excerpt

Chicago Tribune investigative reporter Karisa King called the military the most closed institution that she has ever covered.

Getting information from the armed forces is "like trying to squeeze blood out of a rock," she said at a panel on covering sexual assault at an Investigative Reporters and Editors conference this summer. "It doesn't happen. It's incredibly difficult."

But after months of digging, King wrote an award-winning series for her previous employer, the San Antonio Express-News, on how the military treats soldiers who report being sexually assaulted. Her articles revealed that victims often are discharged on false claims that they are mentally ill, while offenders are rarely punished.

The military's handling of sexual assault has sparked reform efforts in Congress, and many journalists in addition to King have written about the topic. These reporters have done so even though the military court system is, by most accounts, harder to navigate and less open than its civilian counterpart.

Journalists on the beat say they are kept out of some public hearings and have difficulty getting military sources to talk or give them records. They say the key to their success is dogged persistence and, oftentimes, the ability to find veterans who are willing to share their stories.

"We didn't get these stories, on the whole, because we got a ton of support from the military," said Express-News reporter Sig Christenson, who has written extensively on a sex scandal at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland and who contributed to King's series, "Twice Betrayed."

"We did a lot of this work because victims in particular were willing to come forward and share their stories," Christenson said. "We owe a lot to them."

The pretense of public trials

King began her series, which won the American Bar Association's Silver Gavel Award, by telling of an Army private who reported being sexually assaulted, and was then diagnosed with a personality disorder and removed from service. King used interviews with experts and assault survivors from other branches, as well as thousands of pages of military and medical documents, to help show that such problems are not isolated incidents.

An estimated 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in the military in fiscal year 2012, according to a Department of Defense report. Only about 11 percent of these assaults were reported, and less than a tenth of them went to trial. About 60 percent of people who did report incidents said they felt some form of retaliation, according to the study.

Journalists say a key reason it is difficult to get the story behind these numbers is that the military justice system operates separately from the civilian one. It is bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice and the Manual for Courts-Martial, and does not have the same tradition of access as civilian courts do.

A key feature of the military system is that cases stay within the "chain of command." The accused is first brought before his or her immediate commander, who decides whether to dismiss the case or move it forward.

Even though two main types of military judicial proceedings - the Article 32 hearing and the court-martial - are presumptively open under the law, reporters are sometimes shut out.

"We have the pretense of public trials, but not the reality," said Eugene R. Fidell, who teaches military justice at Yale Law School.

Article 32 hearings are common preliminary hearings that are similar to grand jury proceedings. King called them "goldmines for reporters" because victims and witnesses often give lengthy testimony. If there is enough evidence for the case to proceed, the next step is court-martial, which is the military's version of a civilian criminal trial.

A separate type of hearing, called a non-judicial or administrative proceeding, is not public. (The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press has guides with additional background on the military justice system and tips on how to access dockets. …

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