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Sen. Gillibrand: sexual assault in military an ‘epidemic’ that’s getting worse

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand joins Judy Woodruff to discuss solutions for what she believes is an "epidemic" in the military - sexual assault. Gillibrand says the best way to reduce sexual assault cases in the military, on top of training, is to "convict predators" and install independent investigation boards.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York.

    Senator, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Let me just say, you have been talking about this issue for years. Today, you said it's an epidemic of sexual assault in the military. You said nothing has been done in 15 years. Whose fault is that?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    It's the Department of Defense and it's the command.

    They have said, since Dick Cheney was the secretary of defense 25 years ago, that there was zero tolerance for sexual assault. I have been having hearings ability this since 2013. And every time a commander comes in front of our committee, they say that they have got this.

    And they don't. They just — they keep saying commanders are the only people who can fix this problem. But, unfortunately, the problem is getting much worse. Not only are there 20,000 estimated sexual assaults each year, but the percentage of cases that are going to trial is going down, and the percentage of cases ending in conviction is also going down.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Senator, let me just ask you quickly about solutions.

    Today, the Pentagon announced the members of this independent review commission they're creating. We also have just heard in our report women themselves who are part of the 18th Airborne Corps in the Army are saying, we need to change training methods.

    Are these things likely to make a difference?

  • Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand:

    Well, of course, we should do everything we can to train our members of the armed services as best as we can, and we should do everything we can for prevention.

    But the way to send a message and the way to change the culture is convict predators. If you actually convict rapists and recidivists, there will be less rape and less recidivism. And, in fact, it sends a message that these are crimes that are not tolerated in the military.

    When you don't actually prosecute assailants, and you don't prosecute the crime of rape, well, of course, predators feel that they have more and more leeway to continue to commit these crimes.

    So, that's why I believe we need to professionalize how the armed services handled these cases. And the decision about whether or not to go to trial in a given case should be given to a trained military prosecutor who's outside of the chain of command of the victim and the accused.

    If you did that, then survivors would know that there was someone who would look at their case who has no skin in the game, who has no bias, who doesn't know them or the accused, who will give them a fair shake. It will mean more survivors come forward. And it will also mean that, because of that professionalism, perhaps different cases are chosen and there's a better end result.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Well, in connection with that, let me ask you about two things.

    One is the way the so-called military separation boards operate. Changing that, could that make a difference? And, also, at your hearing today, we heard Amy Franck recommend that victim advocates should be independent of the chain of command. That's something you support?

  • Kirsten Gillibrand:

    I fully support that.

    First of all, we have heard from victim advocates that they have been bullied, that they have been pressured, that they have not been given the authority they need to actually support their client by taking a case, for example, to the inspector general for retaliation.

    They're not allowed to represent their client in the same way that a regular lawyer is. And they don't have the same authority. They don't have the same ability to represent these clients in these types of litigation.

    And so, yes, I would love them to be independent of the chain of command. And, yes, I would like them to have more training and actually be more senior.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Senator, in connection with the commanders' ability to punish alleged perpetrators, you did introduce eight years ago legislation creating a new channel for adjudicating sexual assault.

    At the time, there wasn't support in the Pentagon, there wasn't support among your Senate colleagues. Is there support now?

  • Kirsten Gillibrand:

    Yes, I think there's much more support now.

    A number of my colleagues that I have spoken to have said: I wanted to give other reforms a chance. now that it's been eight years, I think I might change my mind.

    And so I think there's a number of senators that will — where previously no-votes will now be yes-votes. We also have a commander in chief in the White House who has said he wants to take these cases out of the chain of command.

    He has been very clear about his views on sexual violence, having not only written the Violence Against Women's Act, but being at the forefront of these issues. So, we have a commander in chief in Joe Biden that supports this kind of reform. And so, hopefully, he's informed his secretary of defense to do a three-month investigation and to have a report.

    Hopefully, that commission will look at these ideas and hopefully support them.

    But, in the meantime, I'm going to get the bipartisan support I need for this bill. There's few bills in Washington that has the support of both Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, both Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell. But this bill does.

    It's the kind of commonsense reform that could transform how survivors see this issue. It's the one thing they have asked for. They have asked over and over again, survey after survey, that, if we could change one thing, they would change who makes the decision, and they have asked it to be someone outside the chain of command who's trained and has the kind of skills and unbiased ability to do the work.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    And, Senator, something else I do want to ask you about, and that is your home state governor, Andrew Cuomo.

    As you know, he has now been accused by eight different women of sexual harassment, incidents of sexual misconduct. You and your fellow New York Senator Chuck Schumer have called on him to step down, as has a majority the New York congressional delegation. There are investigations under way.

    But he says he's not — hasn't done anything wrong, he's not going to step down. And he says people calling for him to do that are part of the so-called liberal cancel culture group.

    Is that what's going on?

  • Kirsten Gillibrand:

    No, that's an absurd statement.

    Given that he will not step down, we have two investigations that will move forward. The attorney general will do her investigation, as will the state assembly. They will begin impeachment investigations. Those are two significant investigations that will take months.

    But, again, given where we are with COVID and the economy, I think it's very difficult, given that our governor has lost the support of most of his governing partners.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    So, are you saying you think he will hold on for months while these investigations take place?

  • Kirsten Gillibrand:

    He might. I think that's what he said.

    So, I disagree. I think we should be focused on the important task of governing and getting these resources into the economy. And I think it'll be very hard to do that, given where he is.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, we appreciate it. Thank you very much.

  • Kirsten Gillibrand:

    Thank you.

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