A federal judge in New Haven has ruled that the Departments of Defense and Veterans' Affairs have failed to respond adequately to a Freedom of Information Act request for records documenting rape, sexual assault, domestic violence and sexual harassment in the military.
U.S. District Court Judge Mark R. Kravitz ordered the departments to provide additional documentation related to the insufficient searches by May 15. The 2010 FOIA request was made by the American Civil Liberties Union, the ACLU of Connecticut and the Service Women's Action Network.
"In light of Judge Kravitz's order, we urge the military agencies to move forward in good faith and search for and release all records responsive to our requests so that we may learn the true extent of military sexual assault," said Sandra Staub, legal director for the ACLU of Connecticut.
It is estimated that more than 19,000 service members are sexually assaulted each year. In order to fully understand where the biggest flaws lie in the current military justice system surrounding sexual violence, the organizations are seeking access to key data in the thousands of reports filed, including where reports were made and how reports were handled.
"It's extremely troubling that the government is dragging its feet in the fight to end sexual assault and harassment in our military," said Sandra Park, staff attorney with the ACLU Women's Rights Project. "It is essential that the truth about military sexual violence is exposed so we can move forward to better support victims and prevent incidents in the future."
Kravitz ruled late Friday that government officials from both departments did not conduct adequate searches to respond to portions of the FOIA request, or inadequately documented those searches. 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."
"When a highly respected federal judge accuses the U.S. Army of 'almost willful blindness,' it's clear that the government is stonewalling the public," said Doug Lieb, a law student intern with Yale Law School's Veterans Legal Services Clinic, which represents the requesters. "Instead of releasing the records and addressing the problem of sexual violence, the military and the VA are trying to bury the issue under reams of paper in court. We hope this ruling makes clear they won't get away with it."
Anu Bhagwati, Executive Director of the Service Women's Action Network and a former Marine captain, said the organization was pleased by the ruling. "Since the first step in devising solutions to military sexual violence is understanding the root of the problem, the public needs this information in order to ensure meaningful reform," she said.
More information on this case can be found at: www.aclu.org/womens-rights/service-womens-action-network-v-department-defense
- March 3, 2012