“There is risk of unintended consequences if we act in haste without thorough or thoughtful review,” Inhofe said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has offered a package of modest changes to the military’s justice system, including preventing commanders from overturning convictions for major offenses such as sexual assault. Hagel’s proposals have the endorsement of top military brass, who have stressed that commanders should continue to play a role in the military justice system.
“Should further reform be needed, I urge that military commanders remain central to the legal process,” Dempsey told the panel in his prepared statement. “The commander’s ability to preserve good order and discipline remains essential to accomplishing any change within our system.”
Reducing commanders’ responsibility, Dempsey warned, could adversely affect the ability of commanders to enforce professional standards and ultimately accomplish missions.
Gillibrand defended the broader changes contained in her bill, arguing that not all commanders are objective, not all want women in the force and not all “can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape.”
“You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases,” she said. “They’re afraid to report. They think their careers will be over. They fear retaliation. They fear being blamed.”
Gillibrand stressed that several allies have removed commanders from the decision-making on major crimes. Her bill preserves commanders’ authority over misdemeanors and uniquely military crimes.
Dempsey conceded that while the issue has top-level attention now, sexual assault was pushed aside during a decade of war. Commanders, he said, neglected to properly gauge the extent of the problem within their forces.
“I took my eye off the ball in the commands that I had,” Dempsey said.
‘Disgust and Disappointment’
Arizona Republican Sen. John McCain voiced his frustrations with the military but did not hint at which changes he would back.
“I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment,” McCain said. “We have been talking about the issue for years, and talk is insufficient.”
Democratic Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island asked the service chiefs for more details on how many commanders had been dismissed specifically for creating an environment that led to sexual assaults.
“If you want the chain of command to have the authority it has today, then it has to be extraordinarily responsible for this specific issue,” he said.
Missouri Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, meanwhile, stressed that the military needs to improve how it tracks the most egregious instances of sexual assault. The military, she said, should not lump rape and sodomy in with lesser offenses when it reports on these crimes.
“This isn’t about sex. This is about assaultive domination,” McCaskill said, adding that there are “predators in your ranks that are sullying the great name of our American military.”
The military estimates that 26,000 sexual assaults occurred within its ranks in 2012 — a 37 percent spike over 2010.
While most members of the panel seemed truly alarmed by the rising rates of sexual assaults in the force, others appeared to downplay the issue.