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Provision To Change Handling of Military Sexual Assault Cases Could Be Replaced in Defense Bill

Provision To Change Handling of Military Sexual Assault Cases Could Be Replaced in Defense Bill

June 12, 2013 — The Senate Armed Services Personnel Subcommittee on Tuesday endorsed measures in the National Defense Authorization Act aimed at addressing sexual assaults in the military, but at least one contentious provision could be removed from the legislation, Reuters reports (Alexander, Reuters, 6/11).

The provision -- authored by Subcommittee Chair Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) -- would allow military prosecutors, rather than commanders, to decide which sexual assault cases to try, with the goal of encouraging more individuals to report crimes by reducing fear of retaliation. The measure has 27 cosponsors, including four Republicans.

However, Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on Tuesday said that he would remove Gillibrand's provision and replace it with measure that would require a senior military official to review decisions by commanders who refuse to prosecute sexual assault cases. Levin's proposal would address concerns from military officials who oppose taking such decisions out of the chain of command, the Times notes (Steinhauer, New York Times, 6/11).

The annual Defense spending bill also included less contentious proposals to address military sexual assaults, including measures that would limit commanders' ability to overturn guilty verdicts, bar them from considering the accused individual's character when making decisions on how to handle allegations and require them to immediately report the crimes to a military criminal investigations organization.

Lawmakers Voice Resistance

Although the subcommittee quickly endorsed the bill by voice vote, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), the ranking Republican on the panel, said Republicans oppose about 10% of its provisions, including Gillibrand's proposal. Graham said, "I think we can have a bipartisan solution to allowing the chain of command to be held accountable." Republicans will address their concerns before the full committee, he added (Fuller/O'Brien, CQ Roll Call, 6/11).

Meanwhile, Levin called his proposal an "alternative approach which those of us who favor it think is much more effective, frankly, to removing it from the chain of command, since you've got to rely on the chain of command to change the culture" (Reuters, 6/11).

Levin's proposal likely will set up a confrontation with Gillibrand in the coming weeks, the Times reports.

In the meantime, the House this week is slated to pass its own Defense bill, which contains provisions that would increase the severity of punishments for sexual assaults and make it more difficult for commanders to overturn convictions (New York Times, 6/11).

Abortion Provision

The Senate legislation also includes a measure that would allow servicewomen to obtain abortions at military hospitals if they use private funds. Under current law, abortions are banned at military facilities unless a woman's life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest (CQ Roll Call, 6/11).