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McCaskill on the offense in debate on sexual assault in military

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: WASHINGTON – With the Pentagon reporting a sharp increase in sexual assaults and the Air Force officer in charge of preventing such crimes charged with sexual battery, U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill is stepping up her efforts to try to toughen prosecution and alter laws to deter such crimes.

“I am confident there will be changes in how rape and sexual assault cases are handled in the military [included] in this year’s national defense authorization bill,” McCaskill, D-Mo., said in an interview Wednesday.

McCaskill and U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillebrand, D-N.Y., are among the leaders of the effort to toughen the laws and force changes in a military culture that tends to discourage prosecutions despite reported increases in sexual assaults.

“It’s a matter of significant concern,” said McCaskill’s Missouri colleague, U.S. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Republican who often disagrees with her on national issues.

“And I think Sen. McCaskill has done a good job in being one of the principal leaders in this. I am equally concerned and I feel like our state has been well represented in this debate.”

On Wednesday, McCaskill and her staff were going through documents related to a female general’s decision last year to overturn a jury conviction in a sexual assault case. Last month, McCaskill had placed a temporary Senate “hold” on the nomination of that general, Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, to be vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command.

“I’m troubled by her decision” to overturn the jury conviction, McCaskill said. “But I want to withhold judgment until I have had an opportunity to visit with her in person.” McCaskill opposes “secret holds” – a senator holding up a nomination or bill without a public explanation – but justifies this announced hold because it resulted from “a desire to really address the policy question.”

On Tuesday, McCaskill joined Gillebrand at an Armed Services Committee hearing in grilling Air Force brass about the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention who was accused over the weekend of groping a woman in a parking lot.

“If the allegations in this case are true, this was not someone who understood what his job was about,” said McCaskill. “I will be watching very closely who is selected to replace him because I think this will be one of those times you can send a message.”

In the meantime, McCaskill told the Beacon that she is examining the pros and cons of the stance of Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel about legislation – including a bill sponsored by McCaskill – that aims to curtail the roles of military commanders in reversing such jury decisions in sexual assault cases.

The issue’s importance was heightened by a Pentagon report this week that – using anonymous surveys and sampling techniques – estimated that 26,000 active-duty personnel had experienced “unwanted sexual conduct” last year. That represented an increase from the estimated 19,300 such cases in 2010.

Those estimates were far higher than the actual cases reported. An annual report this week on sexual assault in the military said that, in fiscal year 2012, there were 3,374 actual reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims or subjects – an increase from the 3,192 reports of such offenses the previous year. 

The offenses ranged from abusive sexual contact to rape. Fewer than one in 10 such cases ended with a court martial and a sex-assault conviction.

On Tuesday, President Barack Obama said he had “no tolerance” for sexual assault in the military, and Hagel announced a series of new programs designed to help sexual assault victims and hold commanders more accountable for how they handle such issues.

Hagel told reporters that he opposed Senate proposals to revamp the code of military justice in a way that would make military prosecutors and judges (rather than commanders) solely responsible for handling sexual assault cases. However, Hagel said he would support legislation to curtail the power of commanders to reverse jury decisions and grant clemency to convicted offenders.

McCaskill said she is considering his position. “I do think there is some merit to having the generals involved,” McCaskill said, “because they have a number of tools at their disposal, including Article 15.” That is a “non-judicial punishment” option for offenses that don’t merit (or in which evidence is not adequate for) a court-martial.

“As a former prosecutor, I liked to have available another tool when a case couldn’t go forward, but had nothing to do with our desire to have it go forward.”

McCaskill also said that “the gravitas of the situation is emphasized when the command is bringing the charges. It sends a different signal than the charges being brought by just JAG lawyers.”

Even so, McCaskill said she is “not ruling out” legislation that would remove commanders from the loop. “But we’re still gathering information from the [military] branches. First of all, how many times are these generals not following the recommendations of the lawyers, in terms of bringing charges?

“It appears, at least in the Air Force, it is 0.5 percent of the time. That’s pretty small. So I want to keep talking to the prosecutors . . . of all the branches. I’m taking a lot of my lead from the prosecutors who are bringing these cases and trying to get these convictions – day in and day out."

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nv., has called on the Armed Services Committee - on which both McCaskill and Blunt serve - to include a provision in the big defense authorization bill that would eliminate the power of commanders to reverse convictions for sexual assault. 

In addition to legislation sponsored by McCaskill and others, U.S. Sens. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., and Patty Murray, D-Wash., have proposed a bill that would make several other changes that aim to curb sexual assaults in the military.

McCaskill says Air Force isn't only bad apple 

At Tuesday’s hearing, McCaskill asked Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and his chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, to consider requiring the inclusion of a victim’s statement in any clemency hearing conducted by a base commander.

And at a defense appropriations hearing Wednesday, Blunt said he talked with Welsh and Donnelly “about how critically important it is that they remove the obstacles and the disincentives that people in the military have to seeking justice for these kinds of crimes.”

While much of the recently publicity on sexual assaults has focused on the Air Force, McCaskill says she is hesitant to say its record is worse than that of other branches.

“Obviously, these high-profile cases and the fact that the person who headed up their sexual assault prevention was arrested over the weekend for sexual assault . . . are combining to put them in the public eye more than the other branches,” she said.

“But I would hesitate to characterize one [service] as worse than the others, because I think there have been injustices done in every single branch of the military.”

McCaskill said she had not yet read the full Pentagon report on sexual assault as it would apply to individual bases, but she had the impression that there have been improvements in recent years at Fort Leonard Wood in central Missouri, where high-profile sexual assault cases were in the news a few years ago.

“They now do a lot of training for military police,” McCaskill said, “As part of that mission, they have really developed one of the best protocols for the gathering and preserving of evidence in cases involving sexual assault in the military.

“I don’t think that I can yet characterize whether their [sexual assault] problem is better or worse than it was" at Fort Leonard Wood. "I do know that they are making an effort to begin to professionalize the gathering of evidence around these crimes. That is very important.”

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