WASHINGTON -- The Pentagon on Thursday unveiled new efforts to combat sexual assaults in the military, but it left the most controversial question unanswered.
Its action doesnt change how much control military commanders hold over the prosecution of major crimes. Whether to keep that power in the chain of command remains a contentious issue, one thats split lawmakers who otherwise agree that dramatic changes are long overdue.
The new measures announced Thursday include providing victims with legal representation, enabling commanders to reassign or transfer service members who are accused of sexual assault and ordering the Defense Departments inspector general to review sexual assault investigations that have been closed.
Sexual assault is a stain on the honor of our men and women who honorably serve our country, as well as a threat to the discipline and the cohesion of our force, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said. It must be stamped out.
Meanwhile, political tension mounts over competing ideas championed by Democratic Sens. Claire McCaskill of Missouri and Kirsten Gillibrand of New York. Though they often count themselves as allies, the Armed Services Committee colleagues now clash over the key chain-of-command question.
Gillibrand and 45 other senators want to strip commanders of the power to decide whether to prosecute sexual-assault and other serious criminal cases. Instead, independent military prosecutors would decide whether a case should go to trial. The offices of the military chiefs of staff would be responsible for empaneling juries and choosing judges, seizing a power that commanders traditionally have wielded.
Military leaders oppose the change, calling it inimical to good order and discipline.
Commanders have long held godlike powers to punish troops under their control or to decide to let an incident pass. Think of an 18th-century ships captain, alone on a distant sea, needing to keep in place a strict hierarchy that binds a force together and leaves no doubt about whos in charge.
McCaskill wants keep the decision-making process within that chain of command, while adding a layer of civilian review. Doing so, she argues, keeps commanders accountable.
I just refuse, McCaskill said, to let these commanders off the hook.
In taking a stance the Pentagon favors, however, the former prosecutor finds herself playing defense against people who might otherwise be on her side.
Last month, an advocacy group called Protect Our Defenders targeted McCaskill with an ad in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that featured an open letter by Terri Odom, who wrote that she was raped 26 years ago when she was in the Navy.
How can you possibly be against the creation of a professional, independent, impartial military justice system? the letter reads. Your opposition to date has been incredibly difficult for me and other survivors to comprehend.
McCaskill bristles at the suggestion that shes sided with the military brass against sexual assault victims. She said shed spent hours holding hands and crying with such victims.
I can see these womens faces, and I would never shirk my responsibility to them to throw a bone to the military, McCaskill said. Its just not in my DNA.
Taryn Meeks, a former Navy lawyer whos the executive director of Protect Our Defenders, countered that the ad was not meant as an attack. Rather, she said, it was designed to convey a victims message. She said more such ads are possible. This month, Protect Our Defenders is organizing an Educate Your State initiative, in which military sexual-assault survivors urge their home-state senators to support Gillibrands bill.