Within the chain of command

Within the chain of command
Within the chain of command
Associated Press

There’s been a fair amount of attention recently on the scourge of sexual assaults within the military, and with good reason – a recent Pentagon survey found that an estimated 26,000 assaults took place last year, up from 19,000 the year before. The information came to light just as reports surfaced that the Air Force’s sexual-abuse prevention chief was himself charged with sexual assault.

Given the epidemic, several lawmakers, led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), have pushed for changes, deeming the status quo untenable. Military leaders have appeared at a series of congressional hearings, and expressed deep concerns, but have urged lawmakers to leave the current system – the military prosecuting its own, within the chain of command – intact.

Last night, the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee sided with the top brass.

[Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.)] stripped a proposal by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) from the policy-setting Defense Authorization Act, replacing it with a measure that instead requires senior military officers to review decisions when commanders refuse to prosecute a case.

Gillibrand’s proposal – which had 27 co-sponsors, including 4 Republicans – came in response to complaints that the U.S. military has repeatedly failed to deal with the issue of sex assaults. The military has resisted efforts to involve outsiders in its handling of such cases.

Aides for Gillibrand told NBC’s Capitol Hill correspondent Kelly O’Donnell that the move was “a real setback.”

The New York Democrat had pushed for a new policy that would have placed military sex assault cases in the hands of prosecutors, not commanders, who would decide which cases to pursue. Levin has now rejected that idea, instead preferring what he sees as a compromise – decisions would stay within the chain of command, but going forward, a senior military officer would review decisions by commanders who choose not to prosecute sexual assault cases.

Gillibrand’s measure is not yet dead – she can renew her push for the policy when the Defense spending bill reaches the Senate floor, introducing it as an amendment – but opposition from Levin and military leaders makes it unlikely to pass this year.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), a cosponsor of the Gillibrand proposal, summarized what is plainly true: “They basically embrace the status quo here.”