This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – Pressed by U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill and others, the top Pentagon brass told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday that deterring sexual assault is a major priority, but rejected the idea of removing such cases from the chain of command.
"Sexual assault and harassment are like a cancer within the force – a cancer that, left untreated, will destroy the fabric of our force," said Army Gen. Ray Odierno. He and the heads of every other branch of the military agreed with senators that more action is needed to stop such assaults, but disagreed with some of the proposed solutions.
McCaskill, D-Mo., who has co-authored two pieces of legislation that the committee will consider, grilled several of the military leaders about weaknesses in the system of reporting and prosecuting such crimes. She said the reporting system doesn’t fully recognize the seriousness of rape, lumping its reporting together with lesser incidents of sexual harassment.
“We have two problems—one is that you have sexual predators who are committing crimes, and two is that you have work to do on the issue of a respectful and healthy work environment,” said McCaskill.
The former Missouri prosecutor told the generals that "this isn't about sex" -- but rather about deterring crimes of “domination and violence” and “creating a culture where victims are comfortable coming forward” and reporting such crimes.
That’s why the current reporting should place more emphasis on getting the ID of alleged perpetrators, McCaskill said. “The victim who won’t come forward today will come forward a year from now if there are two other victims who have come forward.”
In his questions, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo. – who is cosponsoring one of McCaskill’s bills – took the chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, and Navy chief Admiral Jonathan Greenert to task for a “stunningly bad” response to a question about whether the Pentagon had studied the practices of other nations’ armed services in dealing with sexual assault prosecution.
“This is not a tough management thing: Where do you go to find out how people [outside the U.S.] have dealt with this before?” asked Blunt. He added that questions about the military’s handling of sexual assault issue “has been going on now for years. Sen. McCaskill has been, since the day she got here, trying to draw attention to this.”
The generals sought to be responsive on many questions, but they opposed legislative proposals – including a bill whose main sponsor is U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would remove base commanders’ involvement in such cases by making changes in the military's legal code.
“Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately to accomplish the mission,” said Dempsey, backed by the other members of the Joint Chiefs.
However, the generals backed a recommendation by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that would mostly strip commanding officers of the power to dismiss a verdict in such cases. The bill sponsored by McCaskill and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me. -- and co-sponsored by Blunt – would make such a change in the military code of justice.
The generals’ argument against completely removing commanders from the loop was generally supported by both the committee’s chairman, U.S. Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the panel's ranking GOP member, U.S. Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla.
“The key to cultural change in the military is the chain of command,” Levin said. “The military services are hierarchical organizations: The tone is set from the top of that chain, the message comes from the top, and accountability rests at the top.”
McCaskill’s bill, called the "Better Enforcement for Sexual Assault Free Environments" (BE SAFE) Act, stops short of cutting off base commanders from the process.
The bill, introduced last month, would:
- Remove a base commander’s power to change or dismiss an adjudged court-martial conviction for any charge other than a minor offense.
- Require written justification for any changes a base commander makes to a sexual assault-related sentence and require some input from the victim.
- Mandate that military personnel found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy (or attempted sex crimes) be punished, at a minimum, by a dismissal or dishonorable discharge.
- Eliminate the current five-year statute of limitations on trial by courts-martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child.