A federal district court judge ruled yesterday that the military has been too slow to respond to a Freedom of Information Act request for its sexual violence data. There are an estimated 19,000 reports (PDF) of sexual assault in the military each year — a number that is rapidly rising — and both the Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) are seeking more information on the problem, arguing that the only way to begin to solve it is to know all the facts.
In a press release, the ACLU outlined one of the military’s reasons for not responding, and U.S. District Court Judge Mark R. Kravitz’s reaction:
In one example, the Army Crime Records Center claimed it couldn’t provide records about “sexual assault” because its records are organized by specific criminal offenses, not under the generic heading of “sexual assault.”
“’Sexual assault’ is easily read as encompassing rape and other non-consensual sexual crimes defined in the Army’s offense codes,” Kravitz wrote in his order. “The fact that the agency was unwilling to read the Plaintiffs’ request liberally to include such terms seems to be almost willful blindness.”
The military places sexual assault cases into a special category: MST, or Military Sexual Trauma, which puts the onus on the victims by citing their trauma and grouping together all incidents of rape, sexual assault, and sexual harassment. But specific incidents have emerged in lawsuits, testimonials, documentaries, and the Veterans’ Administration has concluded that incidents are under-reported.
Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has vowed to reduce the number of sexual assaults, but the ACLU and SWAN argue only a full account of where and when the incidents occurred, as well as documentation of how they were handled, can lead to solving the problem. Those groups will get what they are hoping for: Judge Kravitz’s ruling mandates that the military turns over its records by May 15.