Sexual assault cases to stay within the military
WASHINGTON — In a dramatic hearing Wednesday focused on sexual assault in the military, the Senate Armed Services Committee knocked down an effort to strip military commanders of oversight in the prosecution of serious crimes by their subordinates.
The 17-9 committee vote to leave prosecutions within the chain of command cut across party lines, and represented a victory for the Pentagon. Leaders including Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and each of the service chiefs have argued that military commanders are best able stem a tide of sexual assaults that Defense Department statistics indicate has been rising in recent years.
But a senator who voted to maintain the status quo, Maine independent Sen. Angus King, warned that legislators would have little choice but to reduce the authority of commanders in criminal cases if the Pentagon doesn’t quickly reverse the trend.
“In a sense, I see this as a last chance for the chain of command to get it right,” King said.
The measure to remove prosecutions from commanders’ control was championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, who managed to insert the proposal in draft legislation approved Tuesday by the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, which she chairs.
But committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., introduced an opposing amendment to keep prosecutions in the chain of command during Wednesday’s unusual open session of the committee as it prepared the Senate’s version of the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.
The House Armed Services Committee produced its own defense authorization bill last week that retains command authority over prosecutions.
Levin’s amendment would set up an appeals system that would give service secretaries the final say on commanders’ prosecution decisions, and makes it a crime to retaliate against those who report sexual assault.
Gillibrand said the time to let the military solve its own sexual assault problem had passed.
“The chain of command has told us for decades that they would solve this problem, and they have failed,” she said.
Gillibrand argued that the amendment does not address the main problem — a climate of fear faced by sexual assault victims when considering whether to report a crime to a commander who may be biased in favor of a higher-ranking perpetrator.
“I’m just distressed that the victims’ voices aren’t being heard in this debate, not nearly enough,” she said. “The victims tell us they do not report because of chain of command.”
The wrangling over the amendment, which lasted nearly two hours, cut across party lines and divided legislators who generally are allies in the fight to end military sexual assault.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who along with Gillibrand has been a leading voice on the issue, sided with Levin. The possibility of civilian service secretaries making final decisions on prosecutions helped sway her, she said.
“I think it’s very important to note that if the commander disagrees with the lawyers, it doesn’t go to a uniform,” she said.
McCaskill said there is no evidence that commanders are failing to order prosecutions when military attorneys advise them to move ahead. To enforce a sense of discipline, she said, commanders in some cases are more willing to order prosecutions than military lawyers.
“There would be cases that had their day in court that would never see court under the subcommittee’s proposal,” McCaskill said.
Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., said taking prosecution authority away from commanders sends a message to the military that Congress doesn’t think it’s capable of solving problems — an incongruous message after 12 years of war.
“We will not solve it by reducing their authority,” he said. “We will solve it by increasing their authority and our expectations.”
But Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., a Gillibrand supporter, said Levin’s amendment may have little effect.
“The fact is, if we don’t have a fundamental change in how we address this issue, are we going to be back here in a few more decades having the same conversation because we still haven’t seen the culture change that needs to happen,” she said.