May 16 (Bloomberg) -- U.S. military commanders would lose authority over sexual-assault cases and other major crimes under legislation introduced today by lawmakers from both parties responding to expanding allegations of wrongdoing.
“Clearly our system is broken,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, said today at a news conference where she was flanked by senators and House members backing legislation to let military prosecutors who are outside the chain of command decide whether to take cases to a court-martial.
The proposal -- opposed by military commanders for years and resisted as recently as last week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- is gaining momentum in response to reports of sexual assaults and harassment in the armed services, including two cases involving service members who led programs that are supposed to prevent and respond to such attacks.
Amid demands for action, President Barack Obama summoned Hagel and the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to the White House this afternoon to discuss the issue.
In the latest case, the Pentagon said on May 14 that a soldier who worked on sexual-assault prevention for a battalion of the Army’s III Corps was suspended from all duties.
The Army sergeant first class, who wasn’t identified by the Pentagon, is being investigated by special agents from the Army Criminal Investigation Command for “pandering, abusive sexual contact, assault and maltreatment of subordinates,” the Defense Department said in a statement.
The sergeant first class based at Fort Hood, Texas, got a private first class to prostitute herself with another military service member, according to a congressional aide.
After that, the soldier tried to coax another woman in the military to do the same, according to the aide who was familiar with the matter and asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media. The second woman resisted and lodged a complaint a month ago, according to the aide.
In addition, a lieutenant colonel who led the Air Force’s sexual-assault prevention office faces criminal charges on allegations that he groped a woman in a parking lot not far from the Pentagon.
U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, yesterday called the issue of sexual assault “a crisis” for the armed forces.
“We’re losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem,” Dempsey said during a return flight from North Atlantic Treaty Organization meetings in Brussels, according to the Pentagon’s American Forces Press Service.
The legislation introduced by Gillibrand would let independent military prosecutors decide whether to refer to a court-martial any crime punishable by a year or more in prison, comparable to felonies in civilian courts, the senator said. She said crimes unique to the military, such as going absent without leave, would remain subject to prosecution within the chain of command.
“We must ensure justice is swift and certain for the criminals who perpetrate these crimes,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who was one of 11 other senators announcing support for Gillibrand’s proposal. “It is clear to me that legislation is needed and our bill is an important step in the right direction.”
Under military law, commanders decide whether to bring charges in sexual-assault cases, choose the jury and later have the authority to reduce or overturn sentences.
Last week, Hagel told reporters he opposed removing sexual-assault cases from the chain of command.
“The ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure,” Hagel said. This week, spokesman George Little signaled a potential reversal, indicating that all options were under consideration.
Hagel responded to the Fort Hood case by ordering the military services to retrain all sexual-assault prevention personnel and military recruiters, according to Little.
“These latest allegations of criminal behavior by yet another sexual-assault prevention and response coordinator are appalling and show the need for fundamental reforms,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victims’ support group, said in a statement. “The Pentagon is responsible for failing to effectively govern its personnel.”
In the case surfacing earlier this month, the head of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch was arrested in Arlington, Virginia, on a sexual-assault charge.
Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski “approached a female victim in a parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks” on May 5, according to an Arlington County police report. Krusinski didn’t enter a plea at his May 9 arraignment, at which his trial was set for July 18.
Krusinski has been removed from his job leading the sexual-assault-prevention unit pending an investigation of the incident, according to an Air Force statement.
To contact the editor responsible for this story: John Walcott at firstname.lastname@example.org