June 5, 2013 in Nation/World

Military brass pressed on sexual assault cases

Leaders adamant on chain of command
Michael Doyle McClatchy-Tribune
Associated Press photo

The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing Tuesday to inquire of top uniformed leaders whether an overhaul of the military justice system is needed.
(Full-size photo)

WASHINGTON – Military leaders pushed back Tuesday against congressional proposals to remove sexual assault cases from the usual chain of command.

With sexual assault horror stories proliferating and political momentum growing, the military chiefs told the Senate Armed Services Committee that some changes are needed. But in a sometimes heated hearing that clarified the legislative battle lines, military leaders warned against “unintended consequences” as they cautioned lawmakers not to go too far.

“I urge that military commanders remain central to the legal process,” said Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately to accomplish the mission.”

Gen. Raymond Odierno, the U.S. Army chief of staff, said that “maintaining the central role of the commander in our military justice system is absolutely critical,” while Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, stressed that “it is essential that our commanders be involved in each phase of the military justice process.”

The military’s position runs counter to a new bill backed by lawmakers, including Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, that would shift serious crimes out of the standard chain of command. Instead, prosecution decisions on most crimes punishable by more than one year in prison would be shifted to outside officers with “significant experience” in such cases.

The bill to take serious crimes out of the chain of command, chiefly authored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is one of seven Senate bills addressing military sexual assault introduced since March. Another measure, backed by Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and others, would leave the chain of command intact but would make changes, including assigning all alleged victims a “special victim’s counsel” and prohibiting sexual relations between instructors and trainees.

Yet another bill, authored by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., would prohibit commanding officers from overturning court-martial convictions. McCaskill further urged military leaders Tuesday to clarify their reporting, to specify exactly what behaviors are taking place and in what number.

“This is about creating a culture where victims are comfortable with coming forward,” McCaskill said Tuesday, her voice rising at times.

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