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Panel: Keep military commanders in charge of sexual assault cases

A panel tasked with reviewing how the military deals with sexual assault recommended leaving authority with commanders.
Bi-partisan group of Senators rally for Military Justice Act in Washington DC
Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) joins a bi-partisan group of Senators to speak in support of the Military Justice Act in the Dirksen Senate Office Building in Washington, DC, Nov. 14 2013.

A panel charged with reviewing the military's sexual assault response practices recommended Thursday that commanders retain their authority over prosecution decisions.

A subcommittee dedicated to investigating the role of commanders in the process found insufficient evidence from U.S. allies that sexual assault reports and prosecutions increased when commanders did not have authority to support that proposal.

"The evidence does not support a conclusion that removing such authority will increase confidence among victims of sexual assault about the fairness of the military justice system or reduce their concerns about possible reprisal for making reports of sexual assault," Barbara Jones, the subcommittee chair said in a letter to the full committee.

The panel's findings are a blow to Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand's efforts to secure votes for her Military Justic Improvement Act, which would take serious crimes like sexual assault prosecutions out of the chain of command. With a vote on Gillibrand's bill expected this month, time is running out to ensure enough supporters to ward off a potential filibuster.

Supporters of Gillibrand's bill applauded the effort to educate the public on the intricacies of the military justice system.

"[Thursday's] public hearing is a step toward increasing lawmakers' and the American public's understanding of the role of commanders," said Service Women's Action Network senior policy fellow Captain Lory Manning. "As a former commander, I can tell you that the responsibilities of military leadership are varied and complex...Legal decisions regarding nonmilitary-specific, felony-equivalent crimes should be made by military attorneys with the necessary legal education. Removing these decisions from military commanders does not diminish their authority— they still retain all the disciplinary tools they need to maintain good order and discipline and to accomplish their command missions.”

In its findings, the subcommittee noted that reforms passed in this year's National Defense Authorization Act cannot yet be evaluated for their effectiveness. Because those reforms and those ordered last year by Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel are new, the panel argued, the Pentagon should be given time to implement them before making more changes. There has not been unified opposition to Gillibrand's proposal. A Department of Defense advisory committee dedicated to women in the armed services voted in September to support the MJIA, and there are currently 53 Senate votes in favor of the bill.

The Response Systems to Sexual Assaul Crimes Panel was formed to investigate the military's response to epidemic sexual assault after the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act passed. President Obama has also ordered Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Martin Dempsey to conduct an independent review by December 1, 2014.

Nancy Parrish, president of survivor advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, expressed disappointment at Thursday's outcome. “Instead of listening to our veterans, those who were sexual assault victims and then subjected to retaliation by their chain of command – this panel has so far decided to stand with the status quo and the hollow Pentagon promises of ‘zero tolerance,'” Parrish said.

While Thursday's hearing was open to the public, past meetings have been private, and the panel has been criticized for a lack of transparency. "There is nothing surprising about a Pentagon sub-panel working mostly behind closed doors supporting stated Pentagon policy and encouraging more time to wait and see if the problem gets better," a Gillibrand spokesperson told msnbc. "We have waited for too long, because under any metric, the system is broken and our service members deserve better."