Military brass, senators united against sexual assault but at odds on remedy

Top military leaders received a dressing down from lawmakers Tuesday for failing to curb sexual assault within the ranks. The brass, however, opposed changes to the military justice system.

Larry Downing / Reuters
U.S. Army Chief of Staff General Raymond T. Odierno (c.) testifies about pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military at a Senate Armed Services Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 4. Lawmakers propose removing sexual assault prosecutions from the chain of command, a prospect not endorsed by the testifying generals.

Top military leaders who were called to Capitol Hill on Tuesday received a dressing down from lawmakers for their continued failure to curb the rising incidence of sexual assault within the ranks.

“I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over continued reports of sexual assault in our military. We’ve been talking about the issue for years,” Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona told the assembled officers.

He went on to recount an exchange he had Monday with a constituent who “said her daughter wanted to join the military, and [asked] could I give my unqualified support for her doing so. I could not.” 

The senior officers for their part acknowledged that the sexual crimes have the potential to “destroy the very fabric of our force,” in the words of the Army chief of staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno.

But the universal condemnation of the crimes notwithstanding, the assembled military leaders and members of Congress were at odds over some legislation designed to confront sexual assault in the military.

The range of the proposed legislation is considerable: Seven bills introduced in March alone, co-sponsored by more than 40 senators.

A number of these bills focus on commanders’ authority to administer justice within the ranks, which some lawmakers charge is too often misused, either inadvertently or, from time to time, intentionally, to overturn sexual assault convictions. Commanders have also been criticized for failing to recognize unhealthy command climates that can make sexual assaults more likely to occur.

Among the points of legislation that appear to make the senior military commanders the most nervous are proposed changes to the Uniformed Code of Military Justice, the military’s legal system, to take some of these powers away from commanders.

This includes putting into place requirements that commanders who receive reports of sexual assault immediately submit them to criminal investigators, or the next higher officer in the chain of command. 

Other bills would direct the Pentagon to remove the chain of command from deciding whether and how to proceed with a case. 

While stressing that sexual assault “simply cannot be tolerated” and that in allowing them to continue has “violated the trust” of US troops, General Odierno also warned against changes to the military justice system.

“Removing commanders – making commanders less responsible and less accountable – will not work,” he said. “It will undermine the readiness of the force. It will inhibit our commanders’ ability to shape the climate and discipline of our units and, most importantly, it will hamper the timely delivery of justice to the very people we wish to help.” 

Other officers argued that perhaps other solutions would be more appropriate than changes to the military justice system. 

“I see merit in initiatives to prohibit those convicted of sexual assault from joining our ranks in the first place,” offered Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Other service chiefs agreed that more needs to be done to keep sexual predators from joining the forces, since recruitment screening procedures are not always sufficient, they acknowledged.

Some of the lawmakers weren’t having it, however. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York released a “Viewers Guide” for the hearing hours before it began.

“It is expected that the testimony from the sixteen military leaders will be in strong opposition” to the legislation, she wrote in the e-mailed guide. 

“The military leaders are expected to argue that in order for commanders to maintain ‘good order and discipline’ it is essential for the commanders to make this decision.”

Senator Gillibrand pointed out that the proposed legislation leaves an “extensive list of crimes unique to the military” in the hands of commanding officers.

Others argued for better reporting of the crime, too. The current reported military statistics do not separate instances of sexual harassment from rape, for example, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D) of Missouri pointed out. 

“We need to know how many women and men are being raped and sexually assaulted on an annual basis,” she said, “and we have no idea right now.”

According to a Pentagon report released a month ago, an estimated 26,000 members of the military experienced unwanted sexual contact in unreported incidents in 2012, an increase of 35 percent over 2010 levels.

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