The PJ Tatler

Senate Dems at Odds on Letting Commanders Handle Sexual Assault Cases

Democrats are in an internal spat over the effort to take sexual assault prosecutions and appeals out of the chain of military command.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), along with Sens. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), Tim Kaine (D-Va.), Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), and Angus King (I-Maine), offered an amendment to the defense reauthorization bill to strike Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) and keep sexual assaults under the purview of military justice.

It passed in committee 17-9.

The Levin amendment requires an independent review by the next higher level of the chain of command in those cases when a commander decides not to prosecute a sexual assault allegation.

“I do not support removing the authority of commanders to prosecute sexual assault cases and putting that decision in the hands of military lawyers outside of the chain of command, as the Personnel Subcommittee provision would do. I believe that doing so would weaken our response to sexual assault and actually make it less likely that sexual assaults would be prosecuted,” Levin said. “The provision in question would also unwisely remove the power of the commander to prosecute other kinds of serious crime, including allegations ranging from homicide to barracks larceny.”

“Removing prosecution decisions from the chain of command would likely weaken our response to sexual assault by taking the responsibility for prosecution away from military commanders – who are actually more likely to prosecute – and instead transferring the responsibility to military lawyers – who are less likely to do so,” the chairman added. “…Removing disciplinary authority to prosecute an offense from commanders would also take away an important tool that they need to change a culture that surely needs change.”

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), speaking on MSNBC, called it “a bad day for the opportunity that we have to finally get things right here.”

“You know what Carl Levin and his friends did, it’s very disappointing. He’s my friend but I have to tell you, what they did today is embrace the status quo instead of embracing the victims and using this as an opportunity to bring needed change. They kept the commanders in charge. The commander not only decides whether there will be a prosecution, the commander also decides when and where the court martial will be if it goes forward. And they even pick the jury,” Boxer said.

“This is a nightmare, and it has to change, and I predict we’re going to have a real donnybrook on the Senate floor, because we’re not going to let this go by easily, gently into the night.”

Boxer said she, Gillibrand, and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) will revive the language on the full Senate floor outside of committee.

“My fear is that passing the Chairman’s amendment will look to victims as though we are simply tinkering with the process. The system will essentially remain a black box for them,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said.

Gillibrand said she was “deeply disappointed the voices of the victims of sexual assault have been drowned out by the military leaders who have failed to combat this crisis.”

“While, in my view, we did not take all the steps required to solve the problem, there is no doubt we have taken several significant steps forward with the current version of the bill. I will continue to fight to strengthen this bill by offering the Military Justice Improvement Act as an amendment when the Defense bill is on the full Senate floor for a vote,” she said. “Our advocacy on this issue to remove the sole decision making of the chain of command in serious crimes has only just begun.”

Gillibrand’s proposal is opposed by the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

“I don’t think you can fix the problem or have accountability within the structure of the military without the command involved in that,” Hagel told the Senate Budget Committee.

Levin said that his language, though, expresses “the sense of Congress that commanding officers are responsible for establishing a command climate in which a victim can report criminal activity, including sexual assault, without fear of retaliation, and should be relieved of command if they fail to do so.”

“This is not an issue on which there is division between those who advocate strong action to address sexual assault in the military and those who don’t,” he said. “…The message we must send to our military is that it has no more important mission today than purging the plague of sexual assault from the ranks, and that we are calling on them and counting on them to win this battle. If we give them the tools they need, they can and will win it.”