Senate Blocks Taking Sex Assault Outside Military Command

The U.S. Senate blocked a measure sought by victims of sexual assaults in the military to take away the ability of commanders to prosecute those cases.

By a vote of 55-45, the Senate today fell short of the 60 votes required to act on the measure by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, that would turn over such cases to independent military prosecutors outside the alleged victim’s chain of command.

“The evidence shows removing this authority from our commanders would weaken, not strengthen, our response to this urgent problem,” said Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which rejected Gillibrand’s proposal last year at the urging of top Pentagon leaders.

Supporters of the measure said most victims are afraid to report the crimes committed against them because they fear retaliation by their superiors.

“The people who don’t trust the chain of command are the victims,” Gillibrand said today on the Senate floor. In a statement after the vote, she pledged to continue fighting for her measure and said, “We know the deck is stacked against victims of sexual assault in the military, and today we saw the same in the halls of Congress.”

‘Shameful’ Assaults

A reported surge in sexual assaults that President Barack Obama has called “shameful and disgraceful” spurred calls for legislation, with women in Congress such as Gillibrand and Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, at the forefront. The two lawmakers later split, with McCaskill leading opposition to Gillibrand’s approach while supporting provisions that were enacted last year in the annual defense authorization measure.

McCaskill pushed an alternative measure today that would authorize a special victims’ counsel to advise victims on whether to pursue their cases in a military court-martial or in a civilian court. Her bill, which passed a procedural hurdle today and was headed for passage next week, also would require that performance appraisals of commanders include an assessment of whether they have properly handled sexual-assault cases within their ranks.

“The way you get increased reporting is to get the victim a safe harbor and her own lawyer,” McCaskill said.

The vote on Gillibrand’s measure, which cut across party and gender lines, came after a two-hour debate that stoked emotions on both sides.

‘Liberal People’

“This is about liberal people wanting to gut the military justice system,” said Senator Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who opposed Gillibrand.

Addressing McCaskill, Gillibrand’s chief opponent, Graham said, “You deserve a lot of credit because people have been on your butt in the donor community to vote the other way.”

“Enough is enough,” said Senator Chuck Grassley, an Iowa Republican who backed Gillibrand. “We’re past the point of tinkering, tinkering with the current system and hoping that does the trick.”

A Pentagon survey of active-duty troops released last year estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports. The findings were issued amid an uproar over alleged assaults that included cases involving officers working in sex-assault prevention programs.

Lobbying Efforts

The vote came on the same day the Army disclosed that its top sexual-assault prosecutor is under investigation based on allegations that he groped a female lawyer at a sexual-assault conference in 2011, the Washington Post reported, citing unnamed Army officials. Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Morse, who oversees 23 other special-victims prosecutors, was placed under criminal investigation after the lawyer reported the alleged incident, the Post reported.

Lobbying over Gillibrand’s measure had been waged on both sides for months, pitting the Pentagon brass against victims’ advocates.

“It is a travesty that this very practical, conservative measure, supported by a substantial majority of the Senate and 60 percent of Americans was blocked by a procedural filibuster,” Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, a victims’ support group, said in a statement. “We may have lost this battle due to political maneuverings, but effective reform will be accomplished. It is only a matter of time.”

Military Objections

Pentagon officials, including Army General Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have resisted Gillibrand’s proposal, saying commanding officers must retain authority over their troops to ensure good order and discipline.

“I don’t personally believe that you can eliminate the command structure of the military from this process,” Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told the Senate Budget Committee at a hearing in June. “Because it is the culture, it is the institution, it’s the people within that institution that have to fix the problem.”

The fate of Gillibrand’s bill was largely clear last year, when the Armed Services Committee refused to include it as part of a package of measures to curb sexual assaults that was passed last year.

On a 17-9 vote, the committee approved an alternative measure by Levin that requires a high-level review whenever a commanding officer decides against pursuing prosecution of a sex-assault allegation. Levin’s package, which became law, also prohibits commanders from overturning jury convictions, while criminalizing retaliation against victims who report an assault.

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