June 4, 2013

Top brass takes dim view of Senate efforts to combat sexual assault in the military

Military leaders pushed back Tuesday against congressional proposals to remove sexual assault cases from the usual chain of command.

Military leaders pushed back Tuesday against congressional proposals to remove sexual assault cases from the usual chain of command.

With sexual assault horror stories proliferating and political momentum growing, the military chiefs told the Senate Armed Service Committee that some changes are needed. But in a sometimes heated hearing that clarified the legislative battle lines, war-fighters warned against “unintended consequences” as they cautioned lawmakers not to go too far.

“I urge that military commanders remain central to the legal process,” said Army Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately to accomplish the mission.”

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff, said that “maintaining the central role of the commander in our military justice system is absolutely critical,” while Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, stressed that “it is essential that our commanders be involved in each phase of the military justice process.”

The military’s position runs counter to a new bill backed by lawmakers, including Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that would shift serious crimes out of the standard chain of command. Instead, prosecution decisions on most crimes punishable by more than one year in prison would be shifted to outside officers with “significant experience” in such cases.

“There is good reason for this legislative activity,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate panel. “The problem of sexual assault is of such scope and magnitude that it has become a stain on our military.”

The bill to take serious crimes out of the chain of command, chiefly authored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is one of seven Senate bills addressing military sexual assault introduced since March. Another measure, backed by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and others, would leave the chain of command intact but would make changes, including assigning all alleged victims a “special victim’s counsel” and prohibiting sexual relations between instructors and trainees.

Yet another bill, authored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would prohibit commanding officers from overturning court-martial convictions. McCaskill further urged military leaders Tuesday to clarify their reporting, to specify exactly what behaviors are taking place and in what number.

“This is about creating a culture where victims are comfortable with coming forward,” McCaskill said Tuesday, her voice rising at times.

The Senate bills, and others like them introduced in the House, attack different facets of a problem that military leaders concede is a serious one.

Last year, active-duty members of the military reported 3,374 cases of sexual assault. This marked a 6 percent increase over the prior year, though officials acknowledge sexual assault is greatly under-reported. Extrapolating from a survey taken from about 1 percent of the military, the Pentagon estimates that there may be upward of 26,000 instances of sexual assault annually, ranging from unwanted touching to forcible rape.

The uniformed military chiefs on Tuesday did not voice objections to the idea of restricting the ability of so-called convening authorities to overturn convictions. Odierno added that he supported outlawing sexual activity between military instructors and trainees and barring sex offenders from enlisting, among other changes. Dempsey added that military leaders were still evaluating the proposal to add special victims counsel staff to all branches.

“I think we have adequate tools, but I think we could use some refinement,” Odierno said.

Specific cases have fanned the flames; sometimes, in ways that have complicated legal proceedings.

In just the last few months, an Air Force general unilaterally overturned the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a fellow fighter pilot who had been convicted of sexually assaulting a sleeping house guest. At Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland in Texas, authorities are still coping with revelations that instructors engaged in misconduct with dozens of female recruits. Near the grounds of the Pentagon itself, the Air Force officer in charge of the service’s sexual assault prevention office was accused in May of sexual battery.

“The United States Air Force cannot and will not tolerate such behavior,” Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, told the senators.

More bluntly, Gen. James F. Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, called sexual assault “shameful” and “repulsive.” Left unsaid on Tuesday, though, was any discussion of the complications that can result from tough talk.

Following a series of stern speeches by Amos last year, at least 60 Marine Corps sexual assault cases, from North Carolina to California, have been challenged by defense attorneys who allege the trials have been tainted by unlawful command influence.

Amos said Tuesday that there have been “many cases” as a commander in which he went ahead with a court-martial against the recommendations of his legal adviser, a perspective echoed by Odierno.

The Senate and House armed services committees will decide what specific provisions to include in the annual defense authorization bill, which must then be negotiated later this year. The Senate panel is scheduled to mark up its bill next week.

“In order to solve this problem,” Odierno said, “everyone has to be all in.”

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