The Senate Armed Services Committee rejected a proposal to remove prosecution of sex-assault cases and other major crimes in the U.S. military from the chain of command.
Siding with top Pentagon officials over victims’ advocacy groups, the panel today turned down a measure by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, that would turn such cases over to independent military prosecutors.
On a 17-9 vote that splintered across party and gender lines, the committee approved an alternative by SenatorCarl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who heads the committee. His measure would require a high-level review whenever a commanding officer decides against pursuing prosecution of a sex-assault allegation.
The vote, which may have doomed Gillibrand’s proposal, angered advocates for assault victims who said many of those who are attacked doubt their complaints will be acted on and are afraid to tell their own commanding officers.
“Senator Levin’s proposal displays a shocking allegiance to military leaders over the interests of sexual-assault victims,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victims’ advocacy group, said in a statement.
A reported surge in sexual assaults that President Barack Obama has called “shameful and disgraceful” is spurring calls for legislation, with women in Congress such as Gillibrand and Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, at the forefront. Today, though, McCaskill joined Levin in defeating Gillibrand’s measure.
“We have an honest disagreement on how best to accomplish our shared goal of putting predators in prison,” McCaskill said.
While Gillibrand has said that independent military prosecutors would “provide the unbiased justice that our victims need,” Levin countered today that her approach “would weaken our response to sexual assault and actually make it less likely that sexual assaults would be prosecuted.”
The Levin alternative adopted by the committee would also make retaliation against a victim who reports an assault a criminal offense under military law.
After the vote, Gillibrand vowed to take her proposal to the full Senate when the annual defense authorization bill comes to the floor.
“We had strong bipartisan support,” Gillibrand said of her bill, which has at least 28 cosponsors. “I think it will receive wide support.”
The companion defense bill approved by the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee calls for a study of the role of commanding officers in administering military justice.
Gillibrand expressed frustration with her Senate colleagues during the committee’s debate today, saying, “Many here don’t believe the victims. They don’t believe the chain of command is the problem.”
Some Democrats who had wavered over Gillibrand’s proposal ultimately sided with Levin.
“I have wrestled with this because I think a lot of our commanders did not get it,” said Senator Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat. “My conclusion is, if you can’t get the command system to work, then the whole thing crumbles.”
Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, broke ranks with most of his party to side with Gillibrand, saying she “made a powerful and effective argument” that the lack of reporting of sexual assaults stems from keeping such cases within the chain of command.
A Pentagon survey of active-duty troops released last month estimated there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports. The findings were issued amid an uproar over alleged assaults that included cases involving officers working in sex-assault prevention programs.
Top Pentagon officials, including the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have resisted Gillibrand’s proposal, saying commanding officers must retain authority over their troops to ensure good order and discipline.
“I don’t personally believe that you can eliminate the command structure of the military from this process,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Budget Committee at a hearing today. “Because it is the culture, it is the institution, it’s the people within that institution that have to fix the problem.”
With Pentagon leaders working to show that the military can act more aggressively in assault cases, the Army said on June 7 that it had suspended Major General Michael T. Harrison, the commanding general of its forces in Japan, while investigating allegations that he “failed in his duties as a commander to report or properly investigate an allegation of sexual assault.”