TOPICS > Nation

Divided Senate debates course of action for addressing military sexual assault

November 20, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Senate began debate on an amendment to the Defense Authorization Act proposed by New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand that would take the decision to prosecute military sexual assault cases out of the chain of command. But as Kwame Holman reports, the bill is up against some opposition from senators and military leaders.

GWEN IFILL: With every new report of the shockingly high incidence of sexual assault in the military comes new debate over how to end it.

Today’s played out on the floor of the United States Senate, as lawmakers prepared to vote on legislation that would fundamentally change how the military prosecutes its own.

NewsHour congressional correspondent Kwame Holman reports.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, D-N.Y.: Sexual assault is not new, but it has been allowed to fester in the shadows for far too long.

KWAME HOLMAN: New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand led off the debate with an impassioned appeal to change the way the military deals with sexual assaults.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Too often, these men and women find themselves in the fight of their lives, not on some far-off battlefield against an enemy, but right here within our own soil, within their own ranks, with their commanding officers as victims of horrible acts of sexual violence.

Related Video

KWAME HOLMAN: Gillibrand’s amendment to the defense authorization bill would strip commanders of the power to decide whether to prosecute service members accused of serious crimes, including rape and sexual assault. Instead, that authority would be given to a corps of trained prosecutors.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: And so when that commander looking at the case file says, ah, you know, can’t possibly have happened, didn’t happen this way. He weighs the evidence differently, differently than someone objective, who’s trained, who actually knows the difference in these crimes and who knows what a rape is. They know that a rape is not a crime of romance. They know that a rape is a crime of dominance.

KWAME HOLMAN: But, in a sharply divided Senate, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill warned that taking immediate commanders out of the loop actually gives victims less protection.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Mo.: And use common sense. You’re back in your unit. You have been assaulted. Which way are you going to have more protection? If a group of colonels half-a-continent away are looking at the facts of the case or if your commander has signed off? Of course if your commander has signed off, because that sends a message to the unit, we’re getting to the bottom of this.

KWAME HOLMAN: McCaskill wants to keep prosecution decisions with commanders, but limit their ability to overturn convictions in such cases. And there would be civilian review of decisions not to prosecute.

CLAIRE MCCASKILL: It strengthens the role of the prosecutor, because it provides another layer of review over the prosecutor’s decisions. It increases the accountability of commanders, making this — evaluated on their forms and adding that other layer of review.

KWAME HOLMAN: The push for congressional action was fueled by a Pentagon survey that estimated 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact, from touching to rape, last year, but only 3,400 of them were willing to report it. Since then, reports have jumped 50 percent. But it’s unclear whether that reflects an increase in actual assaults or in reporting.

Military leaders have steadfastly opposed any move to strip commanders of prosecutorial decisions, as the Joint Chiefs made clear in June.

GEN. RAYMOND ODIERNO, U.S. Army Chief Of Staff: Without equivocation, I believe that maintaining the central role of commander in our military justice system is absolutely critical to any solution.

KWAME HOLMAN: The chiefs say the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines are already taking steps to address the problem, including increased training on sexual assault awareness and prevention.