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Outrage but No Consensus on Sexual Assault in Military

Concern among senators about the incidence of sexual assault in the military is growing, yet there does not seem to be a clear legislative way forward to deal with the issue.

News on Monday that the Air Force lieutenant colonel tasked with leading the service branch’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office was arrested for sexual battery led to a dramatic Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday. Senators from both parties took turns grilling the Air Force’s top brass on what can be done to reverse an alarming trend of under-reported and rampant sexual assault in the military.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., told CQ Roll Call that he would pursue some sort of legislative remedy, likely through the Defense Department authorization bill later this year.

Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., announced the introduction of a bill that would create a special victims counsel, a military lawyer who would assist victims. President Barack Obama said he had spoken with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and told him that he has “no tolerance” for the current situation. And Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would “quickly” attempt to take up legislation, if it’s deemed necessary.

But even with all the noise lawmakers are making now — for years the Senate remained silent on the issue — it’s unclear whether they’ll be able to agree on how to change the system. And Obama has not yet laid out a path outside of administrative remedies.

“For those who are in uniform who’ve experienced sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I’ve got their backs. I will support them, and we’re not gonna tolerate this stuff,” Obama told reporters Tuesday. “I expect consequences. … I don’t want just more speeches or, you know, awareness programs or training but ultimately folks look the other way. We find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable; prosecuted, stripped out of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It’s not acceptable.”

The Defense Department estimates that 26,000 cases of sexual assault occurred in 2012 and only 3,400 of those cases were reported, up significantly from the estimated 19,000 cases in 2011, of which 3,192 were reported. Since the new Congress began in January, a group of female senators elevated to top positions on the Armed Services Committee have increased the visibility of the issue, and some of these same members were the most vocal Tuesday.

In addition to tough questions from Ayotte and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., continued to challenge the relationship between the reporting structure for sexual-assault cases and the military chain of command. Gillibrand has said she will  introduce a bill on this issue.

“What I would like you to consider and I would like thoughtful consideration of this, is if we remove it from the chain of command, perhaps more people will report these cases, because they are reporting them to a trained prosecutor who understands the nature of sexual assault and rape and will not discount their allegations,” Gillibrand told the secretary of the Air Force and the Air Force chief of staff.

Reid confirmed that he had looked at the proposals from various senators, including Ayotte, Murray and Gillibrand, saying that he is “sure they’re steps in the right direction.”

“We need to change the mindset of the military and if there’s legislation that needs to be done — and I’m quite sure there probably is — we’ll do that as quickly as we can,” Reid said, while also blaming “gridlock” for why he probably won’t be able to move any of the measures.

The best-case scenario for legislative change is not through Reid moving individual bills. Instead, it’s likely any amendments to current military law would happen through the defense authorization process that will have to be completed by the Armed Services panel before the end of the year.

Levin said “there will be legislation” dealing with the sexual-assault crisis, but it’s still up in the air what a bill might look like. Given how adamant military officials are about their centuries-old hierarchies and traditions, it seems unlikely Gillibrand will get the dramatic changes she’s looking for.

Indeed, Levin referenced a March incident in which a general overturned a military official’s conviction of rape with no explanation. But he did not suggest separating reporting sexual assaults from the chain of command.

“The defense authorization bill is coming up and I believe there will be language in that bill. I can’t tell you exactly what the language will be, but there’s broad support to modifying the military code of uniform justice on the findings side. After a finding is made by a jury, it should not be set aside by the chain of command because there’s now an appeals process to which the defendant can appeal,” Levin said. “So I think there’s broad support — including by me — to remove the convening authority to override the finding of a panel. It’s different on the prosecution side.”

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