Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, supports legislation to encourage more prosecutions of sex crimes. But she's undecided on one of the main issues — whether to remove responsibility from military commanders. (J. Scott Applewhite / AP)
Washington— The U.S. Senate is poised to pass legislation this fall aimed at curbing what lawmakers agree is a troubling crisis of sexual assaults in the armed forces, but disagreements remain over whether military commanders can be trusted to lead the charge against abuse.
The battle has led to divisions in the Michigan congressional delegation. Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, will present national defense authorization legislation in the coming weeks that includes more than two dozen provisions to encourage reporting, prosecution and prevention of sexual assaults.
Under the Detroit Democrat’s plan, enforcement and accountability for stamping out sex crimes would remain with military commanders.
“It’s a serious problem in the military, and it can’t be tolerated,” Levin said. “I think there’s a feeling on the part of everybody that we’re going to do everything we possibly can to combat it.”
But Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is building a coalition of supporters to amend Levin’s legislation and remove the power to pursue prosecution from commanders and bestow the responsibility on military lawyers. Gillibrand earlier tried to include the measure in his legislation, but Levin blocked it in a 17-9 committee vote.
The debate on who should be accountable for military justice has blurred party and gender lines. U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal Falls, has partnered with Gillibrand to gain bipartisan support for her plan in the GOP-controlled House. Top Pentagon leaders have backed Levin’s approach, while several victims’ advocates have lobbied for Gillibrand’s measure.
In between is Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, who said she supports the comprehensiveness of Levin’s plan but questions letting commanders continue to make prosecution decisions.
“It’s the one question I have right now: Ultimately will the victims feel that they have confidence enough to step forward?” said Stabenow, who is undecided.
The debate on Capitol Hill is fueled by rising reports of sexual misconduct and a string of headline-grabbing military sex assault cases.
Incidents exceed reports
A Department of Defense annual survey released last spring estimated there were 26,000 incidents of unwanted sexual contact in the military, up 37 percent from 2010. But fewer than 3,400 cases were reported by the victims, driven by concerns about others finding out, , feeling uncomfortable stepping forward and fearing retaliation, according to a military survey of its female members.
Benishek was unsuccessful in attaching a measure letting military lawyers pursue prosecution of sexual assault cases to the overarching defense authorization bill passed earlier this year, but still is pushing stand-alone legislation.
He said he consulted his daughter, Kirby, a Navy veteran who advised him the military lawyer approach makes sense because commanders are inherently tied to the people involved in cases and the decision to prosecute should be left to trained professionals.
“Other countries do it,” Benishek said. “Great Britain, Norway, Germany, Israel all removed the chain of command from the decision-making process and haven’t had a collapse of their military.”
A panel of the top military leaders testified before Levin’s Senate committee in June, pledging their commitment to fix the problem. But they rejected Gillibrand’s proposal to remove commanders from prosecution decisions.
“Making commanders less responsible, less accountable will not work,” said Gen. Raymond Odierno, Army chief of staff. “It will undermine the readiness of the force, it will inhibit our commanders’ ability to shape the climate and discipline of our units and, most importantly, it will hamper the timely delivery of justice to the very people we wish to help — the victims and survivors of these horrific crimes.”
Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel adopted proposals in August aimed at strengthening the justice system and pledged “eliminating sexual assault from the armed forces remains one of the Department of Defense’s top priorities.”
Levin urges overhaul
Still, Levin argues Congress needs to overhaul the military system. Commanders are needed to change the culture, just like they were instrumental in ending racial discrimination and the “don’t ask-don’t tell” approach to gays in the military, he said.
“The greatest club that they have is the threat of court-martial,” Levin said of commanders. “You need them to have that club and to use it and to be held accountable if they don’t.”
Under the Levin-backed proposals, every sexual assault case that commanders decline to prosecute would be kicked up to higher review, and retaliation against a victim would become a crime.
The package also creates a special victims counsel; limits a commander’s authority to overturn a verdict for rape and other offenses; eliminates a five-year statute of limitations on sex-related offenses; bans sex offenders from enlisting; and advocates for the removal of commanders who fail to maintain a climate in which victims can report assaults.
Gillibrand said she supports the measures but says they don’t go far enough.
“What you hear over and over again from the victims is inherent conflict of interest and bias within the chain of command system,” said Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin. “The day they came forward is the day their career ended.
“The military has had over 20 years to solve this problem on their own, and they failed and the military leadership admits that they have failed,” added Caplin, who counts 46 senators — or nearly half the Democratic-led Senate — who have publicly supported the plan, including Republican Sens. Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
“We’re beyond the time for action,” Stabenow said.