The U.S. Army suspended the commanding general of its forces in Japan while probing whether he failed to properly handle a sexual-assault allegation.
Major General Michael T. Harrison “was suspended following actions taken today by Secretary of the Army John McHugh and Chief of Staff General Ray Odierno due to allegations that Harrison failed in his duties as a commander to report or properly investigate an allegation of sexual assault,” the Pentagon said late yesterday in a statement, without providing details.
The military is embroiled in an uproar over sexual assaults, which Odierno this week described as “a cancer within the force.” Debate has centered increasingly on whether commanding officers should continue to decide whether to act on allegations of sexual harassment and assault within their units.
Commanders such as Harrison determine whether to investigate allegations and whether to bring charges. They also choose the military juries for court-martials and can overturn resulting verdicts.
Top military officers and their supporters in Congress have resisted a proposal by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee, to remove sex-assault cases from the chain of command and turn them over to independent military prosecutors.
“After speaking to victims, they have told us that the reason they do not report these crimes is because they fear retaliation,” Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, told the military’s top uniformed officers at a June 4 hearing of the committee. “You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you would actually bring justice” in their cases.
Commanders aren’t always objective, Gillibrand said. “Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together.”
While vowing to crack down on sexual assaults in their services, the military chiefs have been united in saying the chain of command must remain sacrosanct.
Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in testimony submitted for the hearing that “the commander’s ability to preserve good order and discipline remains essential to accomplishing any change within our profession.”
The most senior lawmakers on the House and Senate defense committees have sided with the military leaders in insisting that sex-assault allegations continue to be handled in the chain of command. The committee leaders have supported lesser changes, including barring commanding officers from overturning verdicts.
The Defense Department released results last month of a survey estimating 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports. President Barack Obama has called such assaults in the military “shameful and disgraceful.”