Pressure is building on Capitol Hill to make sweeping policy changes to deal head-on with the military’s epidemic of sexual assaults, but Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin may prove to be a moderating force as his panel considers a range of proposals aimed at reversing the trend on these crimes.
At the outset of a marathon hearing on the issue Tuesday, the Michigan Democrat made clear that he believes the military’s chain of command is key to changing its culture and preventing sexual assaults within the force.
He did not explicitly endorse or oppose any of the legislative proposals that his panel will consider next week when it marks up the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill, but his comments in support of the chain of command suggest he may be reluctant to support some of the more far-reaching proposals offered by members of his committee.
Still, the passion surrounding the issue, which has been fueled in recent weeks by what appears to be an endless spate of sexual-assault scandals involving military personnel, will almost certainly make it a centerpiece issue during Senate floor debate on the bill later this year.
The military’s service chiefs, along with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, made their case Tuesday against some of the more drastic changes in how the military justice system functions when it comes to sexual assault.
Among those is a bill sponsored by Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee Chairwoman Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take the decision for prosecution out of the accused’s chain of command for all felony-level offenses but keep it within the military itself.
That bill (S 967), which Gillibrand hopes to attach to the sprawling defense authorization measure when the panel subcommittees meet next week to mark it up, would leave the decision up to military leaders, which supporters call “professionalizing the military justice system.”
Levin has not commented specifically on Gillibrand’s or any other bill, but on Tuesday he stressed that the military is a hierarchical organization and message comes from the top of the chain of command. Only commanders, he said, have the authority to address cultural problems within units.
“The chain of command has achieved cultural change before — for example, two generations ago when we faced problems with racial dissension in the military and more recently with the change to the ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy,” Levin said. “And the chain of command can do it again. The men and women of our military deserve no less.”
Senate Armed Services ranking member James M. Inhofe, R-Okla., said he is opposed to any provision that would diminish commanders’ role in the Uniformed Code of Military Justice. He also stressed that the military only began implementing many provisions addressing sexual assault in the fiscal 2013 defense authorization law (PL 112-239).
“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.
“The young folks that are coming into each of your services are anywhere from 17 to 22, or 23,” said Republican Sen. Saxby Chambliss of Georgia. “Gee whiz, the level, the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.”
The military has been taking some new steps to address the problem.
Over the next 90 days, the military is assessing units for “command climate,” refreshing training for people who work on sexual-assault prevention and response, and improving the treatment of victims, Dempsey said.
He also acknowledged that there is “merit” in some of the proposals offered by lawmakers, including prohibiting anyone convicted of sexual assault from joining the military, requiring anyone convicted of sexual assault while in the military to be discharged and requiring commanders to promptly report sex offenses to the next officer in the chain of command.
But Dempsey was more hesitant about other proposed changes, including establishing special victims counsel for handling these crimes. Dempsey said he is “trying to work through the resource implications” of creating those counsels but agreed that the military needs to do more for victims.