June 5, 2013 — At a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Tuesday, the nation's top military officials vowed to address the problem of sexual violence in their ranks, but they fiercely resisted calls to remove commanders' authority to decide whether to prosecute such cases, the Wall Street Journal reports.
Increasing reports of sexual assaults in the military and a series of high-profile cases have spurred several legislative proposals, such as strengthening legal representation for victims and limiting commanders' ability to overturn verdicts (S 538). The Senate next week is slated to debate and amend this year's Defense authorization bill, which includes a provision that would overhaul the military justice system (Barnes, Wall Street Journal, 6/4).
In testimony on Tuesday, most of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the commandant of the Coast Guard and other military officials, expressed remorse over the problem. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "I took my eye off the ball in the commands I had."
The officers pledged to make changes to prevent sexual assaults, but they rebuffed proposals that would remove authority to make prosecution decisions from the military chain of command (Steinhauer, New York Times, 6/4).
Dempsey said, "I urge that military commanders remain central to the legal process. The commander's ability to preserve good order and discipline remains essential to accomplishing any change within our profession," adding, "Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and, ultimately, to accomplish the mission" (Green, "Women in the World," Daily Beast, 6/4).
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said commanders have "lost the trust" of troops that they will properly prosecute cases (Wall Street Journal, 6/4). She said her bill (S 967) to allow military prosecutors, rather than commanders, to decide which cases to try would encourage victims to come forward without fear of retaliation for reporting the crimes (New York Times, 6/4).
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said sexual assault is "a long term threat to the strength of the military," adding, "And we have to ask ourselves, if left uncorrected, what effect wi[ll] this have on recruits and women?" ("Women in the World," Daily Beast, 6/4).
Advocates for survivors of sexual assault also testified at the hearing. Anu Bhagwati, a former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network, said, "The military does not create rapists," but it does "condone sexual violence" (New York Times, 6/4).
New York Times' Columnist Dowd Urges Changes
"There's no excuse for permitting a system to allow commanders to sweep things under the rug and allow threats of retaliation," writes New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, who supports removing military commanders' authority over sexual assault prosecutions.
Dowd agrees with Eugene Fidell, a professor at Yale Law School, who likened the military's arguments against the changes to the "mystical notion of commanders' responsibility" under the British military system the U.S. inherited from George III. Fidell called on the U.S. to "cut the strings to the British system," which has "outlived its utility and credibility" (Dowd, New York Times, 6/4).