Senate blocks change to who can prosecute military sexual assault cases

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. speaks during a press conference calling for the creation of an independent military justice system for deal with sexual harassment and assault in the military on February 6, 2014. At right is Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. speaks during a press conference calling for the creation of an independent military justice system for deal with sexual harassment and assault in the military on February 6, 2014. At right is Senator Richard Blumenthal, D-CT. Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The Senate has blocked a bill that would have stripped senior military commanders of their authority to prosecute rapes and other serious offenses in the ranks.

The vote on Thursday was 55-45, short of the 60 necessary to move ahead on the legislation. The Pentagon’s leadership vigorously opposed the measure, arguing that officers should have more responsibility, not less, for the conduct of the men and women they lead. But proponents of the bill sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., insisted that far-reaching changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice were necessary to curb the scourge of rapes and sexual assaults.

“You can’t mess with the chain of command,” Sen. Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, said on the Senate floor.

The legislation illustrated the deep frustration among Republicans and Democrats over the military’s failure to stem the epidemic of sexual assaults in the ranks. The Pentagon came under pressure last month to disclose more information about how sexual assault cases are adjudicated following an Associated Press investigation that found a pattern of inconsistent judgments and light penalties for sexual assaults at U.S. bases in Japan.

Gillibrand, who chairs the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, called on Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel in a Feb. 10 letter to turn over case information from four major U.S. bases: Fort Hood in Texas, Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, Camp Pendleton Marine Corps base in California and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio. Such records would shed more light on how military commanders make decisions about courts-martial and punishments in sexual assault cases and whether the inconsistent judgments seen in Japan are more widespread.

The AP’s investigation, which was based on hundreds of internal military documents it first began requesting in 2009, found that what appeared to be strong cases were often reduced to lesser charges. Suspects were unlikely to serve time even when military authorities agreed a crime had been committed. In two rape cases, commanders overruled recommendations to court-martial the accused and dropped the charges instead.

The power to punish or pardon has been a principal tenet of military law dating back more than two centuries. It’s rooted in the military’s conviction that commanders must have the ability to discipline the troops they lead in peacetime and war. Undercutting that role, top Defense Department officials have warned, would send a message that there is lack of faith in the officer corps, and that in turn will undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of the armed forces.

The military has struggled increasingly in recent years with the sexual assault issue. After much debate, Congress late last year passed numerous changes to the military’s legal system. But the reforms didn’t go far enough for many lawmakers.

“If we measured any other mission that our military has set zero tolerance for, compared to how they’ve done on sexual assault, there would be an outcry louder than we can imagine,” Gillibrand said. “But in this case, they have failed over and over and over again.”