WASHINGTON (AP) — The U.S. Army said a soldier has been charged with secretly photographing and videotaping at least a dozen women at the U.S. Military Academy, including in a bathroom. Wednesday's announcement came as members of a congressional panel angry over the growing epidemic of sexual assaults in the military took a key step toward tackling the problem.
The House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee passed legislation that would strip commanding officers of their longstanding authority to unilaterally change or dismiss court-martial convictions in rape and assault cases. Lawmakers believe the revision will lead to a cultural shift and encourage victims to step forward.
The legislation also would impose harsher penalties on service members found guilty of sexual offenses by requiring that they be dismissed or dishonorably discharged.
A Pentagon report released this month estimated that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs.
The report showed the number of sexual assaults actually reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. But a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be as high as 26,000.
Congress has repeatedly challenged the military to take more aggressive steps to curb sexual assault. President Barack Obama has said he wants to eliminate the "scourge" of sexual assault.
The subcommittee's vote came after a string of incidents that raised fresh doubts about the military's commitment to tackling the problem.
In the latest case at the U.S. Military Academy, Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon is facing charges of dereliction of duty, mistreatment, entering a women's bathroom without notice, and taking and possessing inappropriate photos and videos.
And just before the Pentagon's report on sexual assault statistics was released, the Air Force officer who led the service's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit was arrested on charges of groping a woman in a parking lot. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was removed from his post after the Air Force learned of his arrest.
Separately, the Senate Armed Services Committee is taking up a series of sexual assault prevention measures next month. A final plan will eventually be produced after any differences between the House and Senate are resolved.
Associated Press writer Richard Lardner contributed.