Pentagon girds for Senate fight over sexual assault bill

A bill to strip commanders of their authority in sexual assault cases has bipartisan support in the Senate. But Pentagon officials say it would make a bad situation worse.

Michael Bonfigli/The Christian Science Monitor
Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan speaks to reporters at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast in Washington Tuesday. He opposes a bill to take military commanders out of the chain of command in sexual assault cases.

A powerful bipartisan cadre of lawmakers will butt heads with some of the US military’s top generals in a likely showdown over a new bill that would force the Pentagon to create a new justice system for victims of military sexual assault.

The chief point of contention is a provision by the bill – co-sponsored by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D) of New York and Rand Paul (R) of Kentucky – would remove the military chain of command from cases involving sexual assault.

This means that for sexual assault crimes punishable by more than one year of jail time, commanders would no longer be part of the decisionmaking process about whether to move forward with prosecutions.

One quarter of US troops who say that they were subjected to unwanted sexual contact report that the offender was someone in their chain of command.

The bill, whose new conservative backers were announced in press conference Tuesday morning, is robustly opposed by some of the Pentagon’s top generals, who turned to heavyweights on the Senate Armed Services Committee for support.

In remarks at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast for reporters Tuesday, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, argued that it would be a mistake to remove commanders from the prosecution process. “It’s the commanders who make it work,” he said. “They give orders; they discipline people.”

In a congressional hearing last month, top military leaders went to great lengths to make the same case and even went a step further, arguing that such a move would be untenable.

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

Instead, the key is changing the command climate, which commanders cannot do if they are removed from the prosecutorial process, Senator Levin argued Tuesday at the Monitor Breakfast.

Before Senator Gillibrand introduced her most recent sexual assault bill, Levin had removed a proposal from Gillibrand from the defense spending bill last month that would have allowed military prosecutors, rather than commanders, to decide to move forward with a charge of sexual assault.

Levin has instead introduced his own legislation to require that if there is an allegation of sexual assault and a commander decides not to move forward with a prosecution, that decision is automatically reviewed by a general officer.

What’s more, in instances where a commander’s decision not to prosecute a sexual assault case goes against the recommendation of his legal advisers, there will be yet another automatic review conducted by the service secretary – in other words, the top civilian in each military branch.

“That has not been done yet. It is going to be done under our law,” Levin said Tuesday. “It’s a very important change.”

According to a Pentagon report released in May, an estimated 26,000 US troops experienced unwanted sexual contact – but did not report it – in 2012, an increase of 35 percent over 2010 levels.

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