WASHINGTON (AP) - Siding with the Pentagon's top brass, the Senate Armed Services Committee approved legislation Wednesday to keep commanders involved in deciding whether to prosecute sexual assault cases, rejecting an aggressive plan to stem sex-related crimes in the armed forces by overhauling the military justice system.
By a vote of 17-9, the committee passed a bill crafted by the committee's chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., designed to increase pressure on senior commanders to prosecute sexual assault cases by requiring a top-level review if they fail to do so. Levin's proposal also makes it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault and also would relieve commanders who fail to create a climate receptive for victims.
The committee rejected a proposal in a bill by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial. That judgment would have rested instead with seasoned trial lawyers who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or above. The committee also rejected a provision of Gillibrand's bill that would have taken away a commander's authority to convene a court-martial by giving that responsibility to new and separate offices outside the victim's chain of command.
Echoing concerns voiced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff over Gillibrand's proposal, members who backed Levin said they feared taking commanders out of the legal process would create more problems than it would solve by undercutting the ability of officers to maintain good order and discipline in their units.
"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 the chain of command," said Levin, who acknowledged the military has a serious problem with sexual assaults in the ranks.
Levin's bill will be included in a sweeping 2014 defense policy bill. It retains a provision from Gillibrand's proposal that would largely strip commanders of the power to overturn convictions in rape and assault cases. The change was initially recommended in April by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and is backed by the Joint Chiefs and many members of the House and Senate.
Under Levin's legislation, the civilian secretaries of the military services would be required to conduct a review if a commander ignores the recommendation of a military lawyer to prosecute a sexual assault case.
Commanders actually are more likely to prosecute sexual assault cases than are military lawyers, Levin argued. He cited recent congressional testimony from commanders who said they have prosecuted sexual assault cases against the advice of military lawyers "because of the importance of the message that such prosecution sends to the troops."
But Gillibrand, her voice rising, called Levin's plan insufficient. While she agreed with parts of his plan, such as making retaliation a crime, she said it fails to force the changes needed to transform military culture in ways that would ensure victims of sexual assault that if they report a crime their allegations won't be discounted and their careers won't be jeopardized.
Gillibrand said the problem is not that commanders are dismissing the advice of the lawyers on their staffs. Sexual assault victims fear reporting the crimes within their chain of command, she said, and Levin's bill does not change that. Her bill would, she said.