Levin Says Gillibrand, Cruz Trying to Remove 'Powerful Tool' from Military Sexual Assault Prosecutions

The Senate Armed Services Committee chairman stood fast against lawmakers trying to take sexual assault cases out of the hands of military commanders, stressing that the chain of command remains "indispensable" to solving the problem.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and her bipartisan coalition, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), are trying to get their language changing how sexual assault cases are prosecuted inserted into the defense reauthorization bill being debated on the floor this week.

Gillibrand and Cruz penned a column together advocating their proposal to pull cases out of the chain of command, which appeared in USA Today this morning. "According to the Defense Department, 3,374 cases of unwanted sexual contact were reported last year, resulting in just 302 trials and 238 convictions. Moreover, the Defense Department estimates there were nearly 23,000 additional cases of unwanted sexual contact that went unreported. That means, in total, there were 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact — a 37% increase over the previous year," they wrote. "Such a substantial increase requires our immediate attention. That is especially true considering that many of these are very serious allegations, not mere complaints about inappropriate jokes or disagreeable verbal comments. More than half of the 2012 reported cases — 61% — cited in the DOD's report involved serious assaults, such as rape, aggravated sexual assault, or non-consensual sodomy."

"And the Inspector General for the Department of Defense has discovered disturbing problems with a portion of sexual assault cases that were pursued; more than 10% of the 501 cases examined from 2010 had significant deficiencies, lacking basic elements such as simple witness interviews," Gillibrand and Cruz continued. "Strikingly, across the branches, a majority of service members — 74 percent of females and 60 percent of males — perceived barriers to reporting these crimes. And, that's only among the soldiers who were willing to report."

But Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) argued on the floor that the bill that passed out of committee -- language objected to by Gillibrand and Cruz -- includes new protections for sexual assault victims while not changing the military justice structure.

“These important reforms were the work of almost every member of the Armed Services Committee. The desire to remove this stain from our military is bipartisan and it is strong," Levin said, adding that the "most basic reason" to oppose the Gillibrand amendment is "it removes a powerful tool from those who are indispensable to turning this problem around, our military commanders. Our military commanders are the indispensable tool to turn this around."

Levin noted that he met with retired military women who said "the problem is not commanders."

"The problem is a military culture, they told us that too often tolerates excessive drinking and barracks banter that borders on sexual harassment or crosses that line; that fails to recognize the existence of service members who appear to be ‘good soldiers’ but in fact are sexual predators; a culture that values unit cohesion to such an extent that those who report misconduct are more likely to be ostracized than respected," he said. "None of these problems are unique to the military, but they are exacerbated in the military by the frequent rotation of military assignments, which can make it easier for predators to hide."

“We cannot strengthen our efforts to prevent sexual assaults by reducing the likelihood of prosecution. We know from history, and from the facts, that that is the result of taking this decision away from the hands of commanders. We know of the 100 cases where other authorities, civilian authorities, have decided not to prosecute, but where the commanders then decided to pursue it anyway. That’s just in the last two years. And we don’t know of any cases that go in the other direction."

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) also vocally spoke against the Gillibrand amendment, saying, "The problems that you see in the military, they're all over the country -- they're just talked about more in the military."

Levin said he supports a substitute amendment from Sens. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.) and Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) that would further strengthen the bill's reforms, including allowing victim input in the prosecution of perpetrators, extending the reforms to service academies, and allowing victims to challenge any subsequent discharge from service.