Senate Considers Ways To Address Military Sexual Assaults

Members of Congress are unlikely to adopt one measure that many victims say is essential: taking away from commanders the ability to decide whether to pursue assault cases. Members of Congress say that step would undermine order and discipline in the ranks, and the Pentagon agrees.

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It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And I'm Renee Montagne. We have a surprise ending this morning of a high-profile embarrassment for the U.S. military. An Air Force colonel part of a unit battling sexual assault was accused of sexual assault. Yesterday, Jeffrey Krusinski was acquitted of groping a woman in Virginia.

INSKEEP: Sexual assault remains an intense concern of military officials, who have been battling it for some time. Last week, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said the military system for responding to it is, quote, "broken," and the Senate is preparing to vote on new measures to fight it. The question is, what change will really make a difference? - as NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Right now, military commanders get to decide which legal cases go to court martial. It's been that way since colonial days. The military insists that setup helps leaders keep good order and discipline. But many in Congress say that same system has made victims reluctant to report sexual assaults to their superiors. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, of New York, held a press event recently to push her answer to the problem.

SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: It's time to move the sole decision-making power over whether serious crimes have taken place, out of the chain of command and into the hands of trained military prosecutors, who are trained to weigh the evidence and make the judgment about whether a crime has been committed and there's enough evidence to go forward.

ABRAMSON: Many critics of the military justice system agree with Gillibrand. But Congress is unlikely to go along with Gillibrand's proposal. Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill, of Missouri, backs a different measure, she says, because there's no evidence that commanders are the problem.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL: Almost a hundred times just in the last two years, prosecutors have said no, do not take this case forward; and commanders have insisted that we get to the bottom of it.

ABRAMSON: McCaskill says, countries that have tried taking these cases out of the chain of command have seen no increase in prosecutions. But former military attorney Eugene Fidell says getting more prosecutions isn't the point.

EUGENE FIDELL: Instead, the purpose is to try to achieve public confidence in the administration of justice, across the board.

ABRAMSON: Sen. McCaskill backs another proposal that's already been approved by a key committee, and appears likely to get final approval. Her approach would only take away commanders' power to overturn verdicts. They would hold onto their ability to decide which cases move ahead. McCaskill says the measure relies on other incentives for victims to come forward.

MCCASKILL: Making retaliation a crime, making sure that the victim has the resources necessary to get her the assistance - or him - the assistance they need.

ABRAMSON: Some observers complain the focus on command authority has overshadowed more important issues, like the impact on careers from reporting in the first place. Former Marine Sarah Plummer spoke last week before an independent panel investigating the problem for the Pentagon. She said even though she was at the top of her officer training class, her sexual assault case helped nix her chance to become an aviator.

SARAH PLUMMER: When I reported to Pensacola, Fla., afterwards, in order to pursue my next stage of military training to complete flight school, even after having already acquired the equivalent of my private pilot's license, I was informed I was medically disqualified from moving forward in the flight pipeline, simply because I'd been to counseling for having been raped.

ABRAMSON: The Pentagon says it has taken many steps in recent years, and that the culture of shame surrounding this crime is changing. Reports of assault jumped for the most recent period - a sign, the military says, not of more crimes, but that victims are more comfortable coming forward. The independent panel the Pentagon put together is expected to recommend other changes, but they don't finish their report until next year. Former Army lawyer John Altenburg says Congress should wait before passing anything.

JOHN ALTENBURG: And now, we've got 17 legislative proposals that aren't even waiting for that committee to finish its work, make its assessment, do its analysis, and make its recommendations back to the secretary of Defense and the Congress.

ABRAMSON: The Pentagon strongly opposes changing the role of commanders in the justice system, so the military will be relieved if that proposal fails. But it's likely to come back if the numbers on sexual assault don't improve.

Larry Abramson, NPR News.

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