WASHINGTON -- In a one-two punch from both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue on Thursday, lawmakers introduced a sweeping revision to military sexual-assault law and the president summoned his uniformed service chiefs. The politically popular bill and the high-profile White House meeting underscore how recent cases and reports have rapidly turned combating military sexual assault into a bipartisan high priority.
“We’re not going to stop until we fix this,” Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California said at a news conference Thursday.
At the same time, largely below the surface, the intense focus is breeding some potential legal problems.
The nation’s highest military appeals court already is reviewing several cases handled by a Marine Corps judge who, citing the priorities of the commandant, called sexual assault defendants “scumbags” who “need to be crushed.”
And this week, a military judge at Fort Bragg, N.C., ordered two generals to testify about defense allegations that top Pentagon officials had pressured them to bring sexual assault charges against Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, a former deputy commander of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“There are already clear pressures not only on commanders, but on (military attorneys) to push prosecutions in these cases,” defense attorney Richard Stevens said in an interview Thursday. “If the lawmakers are proposing these changes to increase prosecution statistics . . . once again, Congress is attempting to make the system less fair than it already is for those military members facing these allegations.”
Politically, though, the military defense attorneys are outgunned, and other influential attorneys with military experience support the latest proposed changes.
“I think it’s a good idea,” Elizabeth Hillman, the president of the National Institute of Military Justice, a nongovernmental organization. “We have, undeniably, a big problem with a perception that the military justice system is broken.”
The issue has been gaining steam recently. The extent of the problem became apparent again Thursday with the arrest on stalking charges of the director of the sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky. He is the third military sexual assault prevention officer to become embroiled in a sexual assault controversy in recent weeks.
Boxer joined eight other senators and three members of the House of Representatives in introducing the latest of several recent military law revisions. Chiefly authored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, the 13-page bill removes from the standard military chain of command the decision on whether to prosecute a sexual assault or other serious case.
Designated military prosecutors would decide whether to pursue cases punishable by more than one year in prison. Only violations that are unique to the military, such as being absent without leave, would remain up to commanding officers.
“We have an outdated system that gives commanding officers too much discretion not to pursue charges,” said Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.
Air Force veteran Jennifer Norris, who says she was raped while in the service, attended the news conference with Boxer. Tearfully, she said that “the system is rigged against the victim” because of a “heavy-fisted chain of command” that intimidates victims into not filing charges.
All experts agree that sexual assault is chronically underreported, though in the heat of political debate, estimates may get thrown around loosely.
On Thursday, Boxer and Gillibrand declared emphatically that, as Boxer phrased it, “there are 26,000 incidents” of sexual assault in the military each year. At other times, they more accurately cited the 26,000 figure as an estimate, drawn from a survey of less than 2 percent of active-duty military members.
Last year, active-duty members of the military filed 3,374 reports of sexual assault, according to the most recent report by the Pentagon’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office.
During the same year, military officials reported resolving 2,661 cases. Initial investigations determined that 947 of them were either baseless or outside the military’s jurisdiction. Evidentiary problems forced another 509 to be dropped. Military commanders – whose decision-making would be replaced by prosecutors, under the new legislation – decided to drop an additional 81 cases as unfounded. Sexual assault or other charges were “substantiated” against the remaining 1,124, according to the Pentagon’s report.
“They’re ashamed by some of what’s happened," President Barack Obama said after the military meeting. “There’s no silver bullet to solving this problem. This is going to require a sustained effort over a long period of time.”
Authors of the House and Senate bills introduced Thursday will attempt to include them in the must-pass defense authorization legislation.