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Key Senators In The Dark On Pentagon's New Initiatives To Combat Sexual Assault

Sen. Kirsten Gilibrand has been pushing a bill on the issue — but had no advance notice of the Pentagon's new plans, nor did at least two other Democratic senators on the issue. Sen. Claire McCaskill was notified.

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WASHINGTON — Several key senators were surprised when the Department of Defense announced four new initiatives to combat sexual assault in the military on Thursday.

Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who serves on the Armed Services Committee and has led the effort to take the prosecution of sexual assault cases out of the military chain of command, said she had only heard of the initiatives from the Defense Department's press conference and news reports.

"I haven't seen them, I've only heard they had a press conference because they failed on retaliation," Gillibrand said. "I'm glad they are continuing to make efforts but I think what needs to be done is take the decision making out of the chain of command."

Earlier this week, Gillibrand said she was renewing her effort on the matter, and would try to attach an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act.

The initiatives, according to a statement, include a multi-year plan to "customize prevention efforts," training sessions for supervisors, and new procedures for sexual assault prevention personnel. On Thursday, the Pentagon also released a progress report on sexual assault.

Gillibrand was not the only Armed Services member unaware the announcement was coming: Retiring Sen. Carl Levin, the current chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, did not know they would be released, he told BuzzFeed News.

"I don't know what's in them yet," he said.

A spokeswoman for Democratic Sen. Tim Kaine, who also serves on the Armed Services Committee, said no one from the White House or the Pentagon reached out to their office to let them know the initiatives would be coming out. Republican Sen. Rand Paul, a prominent supporter of Gillibrand's bill, said he had "no comment" when asked about the new initiatives.

At least two senators were notified of the initiatives, however, including Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill.

"I think they are great," she said, following a press conference on the progress report. "I was told, I wasn't briefed on the details, and I'll be honest with you, he was announcing them as I was going to vote, so I haven't yet had an opportunity to look at the details. I was just given a cursory top line."

In particular, she praised two of the initiatives that address the issue of retaliation within the military. McCaskill notably opposed Gillibrand's approach to handling sexual assault outside the military this year, proposing changes to the system that were seen as more in line with the Defense Department.

According to an aide, Sen. Ted Cruz's office also received advance notice about the initiatives. Like Paul, Cruz has supported Gillibrand's efforts on military sexual assault.

A White House spokesperson told BuzzFeed News "senior officials at DOD handled Hill notifications" on the new sexual assault measures. The spokesperson referred questions on specific notifications ("who was notified when") to the Defense Department. A request for comment to the Defense Department was not immediately returned.

The details of the initiatives are scheduled to be in by Jan. 30.

Evan McMorris-Santoro contributed reporting. This story has been updated.

Jacob Fischler is a political reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Washington, D.C.

Contact Jacob Fischler at jacob.fischler@buzzfeed.com.

Kate Nocera is the managing editor for BuzzFeed’s Washington, DC bureau. Nocera is a recipient of the National Press Foundation's 2014 Dirksen Award for distinguished reporting on Congress.

Contact Kate Nocera at kate.nocera@buzzfeed.com.

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