TOPICS > Politics

Gillibrand Calls to Remove Military Sexual Assault Cases From Chain of Command

July 30, 2013 at 12:00 AM EDT
The Pentagon estimates that 26,000 troops were sexually assaulted last year, but only 3,400 attacks were reported. What's the best way to change how the military handles these cases? Judy Woodruff talks to Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who advocates removing sexual assault cases out of the chain of command.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: The numbers are grim: A female soldier is more likely to be raped by a fellow officer than she is to die in combat. It’s one of many statistics that have fixed new attention on the problem of sexual assault in the armed forces.

Pentagon findings last May estimated 26,000 troops were sexually assaulted last year, but only 3,400 attacks were reported.

Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is leading an effort to change the way the military handles these cases.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND, D-N.Y.: So, today we’re standing in a united front to take on these issues with new legislation that will fundamentally remove the decision-making from the chain of command and give that discretion to an experienced military prosecutor, where it belongs.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Gillibrand points to victims who complain that too often commanders ignore their allegations or their careers suffer. But her proposal was defeated by the Senate Armed Services Committee in June in favor of an alternative by committee Chair Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan.

It requires automatic review of any commander’s decision not to prosecute a sexual assault case. Last week, Levin released two letters from senior military officials supporting his argument that prosecution should remain within the chain of command.

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Missouri Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill agrees with him.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL, D-Mo: We believe there will be more prosecutions, and the numbers support that. We believe that the only way to hold command accountable is to make them responsible, not to completely remove their responsibility. We believe that’s a recipe for disaster.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Still, Gillibrand is undaunted. She says she hopes to take her measure to the full Senate. Already, she has 44 supporters from both parties. The legislation could be brought to the floor as early as September.

And joining us from Capitol Hill to talk about her proposal and its prospects going forward is New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

Welcome to the NewsHour Senator.

First of all, tell us why it’s so important to you that the prosecution of sexual assault charges be taken out of the chain of military command.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Because it’s exactly what the victims have asked for. They have said over and over again that they don’t trust the chain of command to deliver justice in their cases.

For those victims who have been courageous enough to report these cases, 62 percent have said they have been retaliated against for reporting those cases. Of the tens of thousands who didn’t report incidents of sexual assault, rape, and unwanted sexual assault contact, the reason they give us is they don’t trust the chain of command, that they think nothing will be done, or that they fear retaliation, or they have seen someone else be retaliated against.

So what we’re looking for is a way to address these cases in a more objective way, where a trained military prosecutor becomes the decision-maker as to whether or not these cases should go to trial. And hopefully with that objectivity and lack of bias, more victims will feel confident in coming forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, as you know, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, your fellow Democrat, Carl Levin, is arguing something very different. He says it could take responsibility away from the commanders, relieve them of the kind of incentive they should feel.

He argues that you should leave it with them and, when they don’t prosecute a case, it should go to a superior officer.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: My response is quite simple. They are still responsible for these cases. They’re 100 percent responsible to make sure no one is raped or sexually assaulted within the military.

They are still responsible that no one is retaliated against, and that they can set a command climate that’s consistent with victims being able to come forward and report these cases. The chain of command is entirely on the hook for good order and discipline. And, frankly, Judy, if you’re having 26,000 sexual assaults, rapes, and unwanted sexual contacts a year, you’re not maintaining good order and discipline.

And if those few victims that do come forward, 62 percent are being retaliated against, you’re not setting a command climate that’s conducive for victims receiving justice. So I don’t believe commanders are off the hook. I think they’re entirely on the hook to do a better job than they’re doing today and to have that legal decision, which is just a legal decision, where evidence is weighed, being made by someone who is trained to do that.

Commanders are still 100 percent responsible for making sure these crimes don’t happen and making sure that there’s no retaliation for a victim when they come forward.

JUDY WOODRUFF: I was just going to say, Chairman Levin, again, his argument then is that what he wants to do is make it a crime if there’s a retaliation against a victim.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: And I agree. And we have already voted on that. We are 100 percent in agreement, and consensus has already been reached on that. We have passed that measure out of the Armed Services Committee unanimously.

So now retaliation is going to be a crime, and it is a crime under the jurisdiction of commanders. And they are 100 percent responsible for making sure it doesn’t happen and, if it does, that it can be reported and that justice can be done.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator, what do you think it says about this issue that in order to put together a coalition of support, you have had to reach way beyond your own party? You have reached into the Republican Party to people who you would typically disagree with politically, Senator Ted Cruz, Senator Rand Paul? And, meanwhile, you are fighting opposing fellow Democrats like Senator Levin, Senator McCaskill and a number of others?

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Well, we all agree that we have to do something about sexual assault and rape within the military.

And victims aren’t Democrats or Republicans. They don’t have an ideology. Victims’ voices have to be heard. And that’s why you’re hearing from senators across the political spectrum who say the status quo is unacceptable, we have to do something. And they’re listening to those victims when they say they don’t trust the chain of command to bring justice in these cases and that the current command climate is untenable for them.

The secretaries of defense since Dick Cheney was secretary of defense some 20-odd years ago have said, Judy, over and over again zero tolerance for sexual assaults and rape. This has been within the chain of command every one of those years since. The commanders have had every bit of authority they need to tackle this problem and solve this problem, but it’s not being solved.

So I think that measure of transparency and accountability and objectivity makes sense. And I don’t think, as they say, it will undermine good order and discipline because we have allies that we fight side by side with, the U.K., Israel, Canada, who have done this already and they still have good order and discipline within their ranks.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Two other quick questions. Of course, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has not gone along with your approach. Where does President Obama stand? Have you talked to him about this?

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I have not been able to speak to him directly, although I have asked for that conversation.

I’m hopeful that President Obama will support this change, this reform, this commonsense reform that creates that transparency and accountability. I also hope Secretary Hagel will. Secretary Hagel has already made the bold decision that taking the decision of whether or not to overturn a jury verdict out of the chain of command.

Now, he’s already changed and recommended a change to the Uniform Code of Military Justice to say this one legal decision should be taken out of the chain of command. I think we should add a second legal decision, whether or not to go to trial, and also take that out of the chain of command.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So, just quickly, right now, you have 44 supporters among your fellow senators. Do you think you will get a majority?

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: I do.

And I think that the more time we have so that I can — and my allies and colleagues, we have so many senators who support this reform. The more time we have to talk to our colleagues, to explain the facts, what’s actually happening, the fact that there’s 26,000 cases, but only 3,300 being reported, the fact that only one in 10 go to trial, those statistics are highly concerning.

And when they hear that and they hear what the victims tell us, it causes them very grave concern. And that’s how we have slowly won the support that we have.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, thank you very much.

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Thank you.