« Hillary Clinton Reveals Plans for Immigration Reform, Including Path to Citizenship | Main | Senate Passes GOP Budget Conference Report »

Senator Says Pentagon 'Declaring Victory' as It Distorts Sexual Assault Numbers

US Senate(WASHINGTON) -- When the Pentagon released a new report last Friday detailing what one top official described as “meaningful progress” in combating the military’s sexual assault epidemic, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand was preparing to release a report of her own.

It might as well have been titled, “Not So Fast.”

In a press conference last week, the Pentagon announced a new military-wide survey had estimated the number of sexual assaults dropped from 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in 2012 to 20,000 in 2014.

Gillibrand, D-NY, said in an interview with ABC News that the Pentagon is distorting the actual numbers of sexual assaults because it doesn’t measure the rates of service members who sexually assault spouses or civilians.

“When they’re talking about the problem of 20,000 sexual assaults a year, that doesn’t encompass this population,” Gillibrand said. “To declare victory by saying prevalence rates have gone down and reporting has gone up distorts the picture.”

In her own independent investigation, Gillibrand found more than half of 107 cases she examined involved civilian women living near military communities and non-military spouses of service members.

“The fact that we just drilled down on 107 cases, just picked one year in the four largest bases, to have to pieces of information that are relatively new to this discussion is what created a massive red flag for me,” Gillibrand said.

The Pentagon acknowledges that although it’s not able to survey the entire civilian population, it did receive reports of 745 alleged sexual assaults on civilians in and around military communities last year.

Department of Defense spokesperson Laura Seal challenged Gillibrand’s assertion, telling ABC News “federal surveys have found that the prevalence of sexual assault for non-DoD civilian women is statistically the same for military women and female spouses of military members.”

Gillibrand began her own investigation in February of 2014 by requesting case files relating to sexual assault and misconduct from the largest bases for each military service for the past five years.

She said despite requests on her behalf from President Obama and former Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel she was only given 107 redacted case files from 2013. She reached a deal with the Department of Defense after then-Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, who had subpoena power, called the DoD and said “you must give her these files.”

Seal told ABC News the department is “committed to working with members of Congress to provide information.”

“Because of the scope of Senator Gillibrand's original request, she and the Department came to an agreement to provide a subset of the documents originally requested,” Seal said.

Gillibrand said she was glad to get the files she could, but it didn’t satisfy her request.

“I’m going to keep asking until a civilian review panel is up and running and doing this job for me,” Gillibrand said. “Because they’re clearly failing. There’s no faith in the system that justice is possible.”

The Pentagon’s own annual report Friday to Congress showed there were 6,131 sexual assault cases filed last year, a 70-percent increase from 2012. However the Pentagon stressed its belief that this was due to more confidence in the justice system, and noted estimates that the actual number of sexual assaults occurring in the military has dropped.

Attorney Susan Burke, a leading advocate for reform in how the military handles sexual assault who was featured in the Emmy-winning documentary The Invisible War, said it suggests the military is purposely hiding the facts.

“What we’re seeing is the same set of patterns applies whether or not you’re dealing with service member or civilian victims,” Burke told ABC News. “That pattern is one of failure to properly investigate, a failure to bring to court-martial, rampant retaliation and a failure to get convictions.”

Gillibrand said the Pentagon not being able to survey civilian populations is “understandable.”

However, she added, “If you're writing a report to the president saying, ‘We only had 20,000 rapes last year and there's more reporting, we are making a difference,’ that really misstates the truth that's happening.”

Copyright © 2015, ABC Radio. All rights reserved.

ABC News Radio