June 11 (Bloomberg) -- A Senate subcommittee approved removing the power of commanding officers in the U.S. military to decide on prosecution of major crimes such as sexual assaults, even as some lawmakers vowed to reverse the action.
The Senate Armed Services subcommittee on personnel adopted the provision by its chairman, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, on a voice vote today. It provides for decisions on major crime cases to be made by independent military prosecutors.
Gillibrand’s victory may be short-lived. Republicans on the subcommittee said they would seek to eliminate the provision tomorrow when the measure goes to the full committee, where opponents also include the chairman, Democratic Senator Carl Levin.
Faced by a surge in sexual assaults that President Barack Obama has called “shameful and disgraceful,” victims’ advocacy groups and lawmakers led by Gillibrand have called for taking the cases out of the chain of command.
Independent military prosecutors would “provide the unbiased justice that our victims need,” Gillibrand said in introducing her proposal last month.
While women in Congress have led a push for stronger action to curb sexual assaults in the military, they have divided on party lines over Gillibrand’s proposal, and some Democrats have expressed a willingness to settle for less.
‘Bust That Gridlock’
“The important thing is to try to get as many of us to agree on legislation so we don’t end up with a party-line vote,” Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, said at a May 23 press conference announcing her own package of changes. “This is an opportunity where we can bust that gridlock.”
McCaskill’s bill would require troops convicted of rape or assault to be dishonorably discharged and would eliminate a five-year statute of limitations for bringing sex-assault charges.
Military commanders and senior members of the Senate Armed Services Committee spoke in unison at a hearing last week in opposition to Gillibrand’s approach.
“Only the chain of command can establish a zero-tolerance policy for sexual offenses,” Levin of Michigan said at the hearing.
“The commander’s ability to preserve good order and discipline remains essential to accomplishing any change within our profession,” Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said.
Under centuries-old military practice, commanding officers decide whether to seek prosecution in cases such as sexual assaults, choose the court-martial juries and can reduce or overturn a sentence.
Lawmakers have proposed a number of measures that leaders of the military hierarchy would accept, including eliminating the power of commanding officers to overturn verdicts.
“We’ve got a bipartisan solution that would allow the chain of command to be held accountable,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, the personnel subcommittee’s top Republican, said today without elaborating.
Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia, a Democratic member of Gillibrand’s subcommittee, also said he has “some concerns” about her proposal, including that it would apply to major crimes other than sexual assaults.
The defense authorization measure approved by the Republican-controlled House Armed Services Committee last week calls for a study of the role of commanding officers in administering military justice.
A Pentagon survey of active-duty troops released last month estimated there were 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports. The findings were issued amid an uproar over alleged assaults, including by officers working in military sex-assault prevention programs.
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