Even after the latest scandals, the issue of chain of command is still prickly, with lawmakers such as Turner and others preferring to move this critical decision further up the chain rather than out of it entirely. But it nonetheless is an idea that is picking up steam in both parties at a critical time.
The flurry of recent accusations has made it nearly impossible for Armed Services Committee lawmakers in the House or the Senate to defend the status quo.
“I think at this point the question is just how much and how far,” said House Armed Services ranking member Adam Smith, D-Wash., last week. “There’s a consensus that the current system isn’t working. The question is now, how do you change it?”
Turner’s bill (HR 1867), which he co-sponsored with Democrat Niki Tsongas of Massachusetts and will be included in the House panel’s version of the authorization bill, would ensure those found guilty of rape, sexual assault, sodomy or an attempt to commit any of those crimes are — at a minimum — dismissed or dishonorably discharged from the military. That requires a general court martial, essentially kicking decision-making for the most serious crimes to the level of a general officer.
“We’re for taking it out of the immediate chain of command,” Turner said. “But at this point, we don’t have a problem with the failure of military tribunals. We have a problem with failure of prevention, prosecution and protection of victims.”
There are plenty of other lawmakers, however, who find Turner’s approach simply too conservative. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., has been pushing a bill for years that would give a new, independent and mostly civilian body jurisdiction over sexual assaults.
Speier attracted 129 co-sponsors, but the bill (HR 1593) is unlikely to make it out of the House Armed Services Committee. The fact that it exists, however, could make other substantial revisions to the military’s justice system look more middle-of-the-road.
Chief among those is a bill (S 967) pushed by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel. Her measure, which she hopes to attach to the broader defense policy bill, would essentially take the decision out of the accused’s chain of command for all felony-level offenses but keep it within the military itself. It would leave the prosecutorial decision up to military lawyers, a move that supporters call “professionalizing the military justice system.”
The bill has picked up three Senate Republicans as sponsors, including Susan Collins of Maine, who last year said in an interview that the “jury is still out” on the chain of command issue. Collins, one of the first senators to focus on the issue of sexual assault, last week said there has been little progress made on the issue despite sincere commitments from today’s military leaders.
“We must take these allegations seriously and, most of all, we must ensure that justice is swift and certain for the criminals who have perpetrated these crimes,” she said.
Vice President Joe Biden waits to conduct a mock swearing-in ceremony with Sen. Brian Schatz, D-Hawaii, in the Capitol's Old Senate Chamber, December 2, 2014. Schatz was sworn in to serve the remainder of his term since he was appointed to the seat after Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, passed away.