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House Passes Military Sexual Assault Provisions; Pentagon Letters Challenge Sen. Gillibrand's Sexual Assault Proposal

House Passes Military Sexual Assault Provisions; Pentagon Letters Challenge Sen. Gillibrand's Sexual Assault Proposal

July 25, 2013 — The House on Wednesday in a 315-109 vote passed a defense spending bill (HR 2397) that includes two provisions addressing military sexual assault, CQ Roll Call reports.

The amendments were approved by voice vote. One provision directs an additional $10 million in funding toward training investigators to review sexual assault related offenses ((Tully-McManus, CQ Roll Call, 7/24)The second provision -- proposed by Rep. Jackie Speier (D- Calif.) -- would provide funds "to identify individuals who were separated from the military on the grounds of a disorder subsequent to reporting a sexual assault and, if appropriate, correcting their record."

The second amendment addresses a trend revealed by a San Antonio Express News' investigative report that found women who report sexual assault crimes often are discharged after being told they suffer from a mental disorder. According to a survey of 1,200 service members seeking care at the Military Rape Crisis Center, 90% of victims who reported sexual assaults were involuntarily discharged from the military.

In a statement, Speier said, "This is an encouraging show of bipartisan agreement." She added that mental health diagnoses "are rampantly misused to administratively discharge or retaliate against survivors of sexual assault" and the falsified reports "affect survivors' lives, their ability to find employment, and to collect benefits." She said, "My amendment directs the military to right this wrong" (McCumber, San Francisco Chronicle, 7/24).

Military Should Retain Authority over Sexual Assault Cases, Pentagon Letters State

In related news, Senate Armed Services Committee Chair Carl Levin (D-Mich.) on Wednesday released two letters from Pentagon officials that argue the military should retain authority over sexual assault cases. According to Reuters, Levin released the letters to fend off efforts by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to pass a bill that would create a new prosecution system for military sexual assault cases (Zengerle, Reuters, 7/24).

Under Gillibrand's measure, military cases involving crimes punishable by more than one year of confinement would be removed from the chain of command (Women's Health Policy Report, 7/16). The measure previously failed to pass the Armed Services Committee, but Gillibrand since has acquired the public support of 43 senators and said she is confident that the measure will garner the necessary 51 votes needed to pass a floor vote (Reuters, 7/24).

Letter Details

The first letter -- sent to Levin from Adm. James Winnefeld, vice chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- provided statistics demonstrating that Army commanders over the past two years have prosecuted 49 sexual assault cases that local civilian authorities refused to pursue, resulting in 26 convictions. Over the same time frame, the Marine Corps prosecuted 28 such cases, resulting in 16 convictions; the Navy prosecuted six with one conviction, and the Air Force prosecuted 10 with nine convictions. "Fifty defendants were convicted of sometimes horrific crimes who would not have faced justice had commanders not had authority to seek justice," Levin said in a news conference about the letters.

Similarly, the second letter -- issued by Army Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, legal counsel to the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff -- discussed how other countries who had removed the responsibility for prosecution from the chain of command had done so to protect the accused, not the victims. Gross explained, "No allied country changed its system in response to sexual assault crimes specifically or the rights of victims generally."

Comments

Gillibrand spokesperson Glen Caplin said the letters show how the "military leadership is shifting the goal posts and fighting hard to protect the status quo." He added that the letters fail "to acknowledge that 37 other serious crimes unique to the military remain within the chain of command." Caplin said, "To suggest that commanders do not have a role under the Gillibrand proposal is wholly inaccurate." He also cited statistics showing that about half of female sexual assault victims did not report the crimes for fear that nothing would come of it or because they feared the chain of command.

According to the New York Times, Levin for the first time is considering implementing a special set of rules for the small number of sexual assault cases that deal with accused generals or admirals because there have been instances of commanders reversing the convictions of high-ranking officers (Shanker, New York Times, 7/24).