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Gillibrand 'surprised' with military push to maintain status quo

One of the Senate’s most vocal advocates for victims of military sexual assault said she was unsatisfied with military leaders’ testimony during the Senate

One of the Senate’s most vocal advocates for victims of military sexual assault said she was unsatisfied with military leaders’ testimony during the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the matter Tuesday.

In a day of fierce testimony on Capitol Hill, top military brass maintained that commanders should still be involved in the investigations and decisions to prosecute sexual assault cases involving servicemembers.

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, who is sponsoring a bill that would do just that—remove prosecution of sexual assault cases from the chain of command in the hopes that it would reduce retaliation and encourage survivors to come forward—told msnbc’s Chris Hayes that she was taken aback by some of the leaders’ reluctance to instigate new policies addressing the epidemic.

“I was quite disappointed that the military really failed to take this opportunity to lead. Obviously they are too comfortable with the status quo and we really need significant reform if we are to address this plague,” she said.

Over the course of the hearing, the U.S. military’s top officials one by one defended the policy to keep commanders involved.

  • Marine Corps Commandant Gen. James Amos said, “Our commanding officers are the centerpiece of the Marine Corps' effectiveness, and professional and discipline warfighting organization.” He added, “Commanding officers never delegate responsibility. They should never be forced to delegate their authority.”
  • Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey said commanders, “punish criminals and they protect victims when and where no other jurisdiction is capable of doing so... the role of the commander should remain central.”
  • Admiral Jonathan Greenert, chief of Naval Operations, stated, “It is essential that our commanders be involved in each phase of the military justice process.”
  • Air Force Chief of Staff Mark Welsh added, “They must be part of the solution or there will be no solution. That’s the way our systems operate.”

“I was very surprised,” Gillibrand told Hayes. “I actually assumed there would be some degree of pushback with regard to the decision-making and making it outside the chain of command. But responses that we got to other reforms like victim’s advocates or making sure that the character of the accused is not considered before you go to trial—there was reluctance to do reform on those basic principles as well.”

Sen. Claire McCaskill, who is sponsoring a bill that would keep investigations within the chain of command but force anyone convicted out of the military, told Chris Matthews on Hardball after the hearing that the issue needs to be addressed with more than just increased training.

“You get at this problem by training investigators, getting victim advocates, creating an environment where victims feel safe coming forward, going after people who retaliate against victims, and putting these people in prison,” she said.

President Obama and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel have both recently been very vocal in speaking out against sexual assault in the armed forces, but they have not yet endorsed any specific proposed legislation aimed at combating it.

At Tuesday’s hearing, Sen. John McCain expressed his disgust and disappointment with military sexual misconduct, explaining, “just last night a woman came to me and said her daughter wanted to join the military, and could I give my unqualified support for her doing so? I could not.”

“If there’s one redeeming quality about this issue, it seems to be one that we’re not playing politics with,” McCaskill said.

A recent report from the Pentagon found that as many as 26,000 members of the military were sexually assaulted last year.

Read more on proposed legislation from the House and Senate targeting sexual assault in the armed forces. 

Watch a raw clip of Gillibrand's questioning during the hearing where she says commanders can’t distinguish between "a slap on the ass and a rape."

You can watch Gillibrand’s full interview on All In With Chris Hayes in the player above, and watch McCaskill’s post-hearing interview on Hardball with Chris Matthews in the player below.