Fight Against Military Sexual Assault Hits New Milestone

The U.S. Senate overwhelmingly passed a bill on Monday to curb sexual assault in the military, but some critics say the proposal doesn't go far enough. Leo Shane III of The Military Times explains.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now we want to talk about what has been one of the most emotional and intense debates that Congress has taken up this year. We're talking about proposals to change the way the military deals with sexual assault. In a rare display of bipartisanship, the Senate voted 97 to 0 on Monday to establish new rules for the treatment of both complainants and the accused. The author of the bill is Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill. And she talked about the legislation on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" today.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MORNING JOE")

SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: We've now passed, with this passage yesterday, 35 major sweeping reforms as it relates to sexual assault in the military. We now have created the most victim friendly organization in the world. I mean, victims have their own lawyers. Victims have more power. Commanders have been stripped of much of their power.

MARTIN: Now the bill must still go to the House, but getting the bill through the Senate was a significant milestone. Still, the overwhelming vote masked a fierce behind-the-scenes battle between members of the same committee who were ostensibly on the same side. Joining us now to tell us more is Leo Shane III. He is a congressional reporter for Military Times who's been following this issue for some time now. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.

LEO SHANE III: Oh, thanks for having me.

MARTIN: So let's just hear what's in the bill, and then we want to get to the politics, you know, behind it. The senator talked about 35 changes to military policy. What are some of the important changes the bill calls for?

SHANE: Yeah, and some of them are pretty significant. The biggest one that folks have been talking about is the elimination of the good soldier defense. This allowed military prosecutors, military defendants to put out there that a soldier, that a service member had good character, had a lot of, you know, had exemplary service, had been a model military member and use that as evidence that they couldn't have committed this sort of crime.

They couldn't have been a, you know, a sexual abuser. Beyond that there's an extra independent representation for victims, stricter sentencing, stricter punishments against some folks who retaliate against victims or who were just simply convicted of sexual assault - pretty comprehensive all-around. And, you know, a lot of the advocacy groups do like this bill and say it will be a significant change if it gets passed through the House.

MARTIN: The - I also wanted to ask you what it does for people who were at the service academies who are not yet of full members of - serving full time. I mean, I think what many people may remember is a particularly brutal questioning of a young woman who was at the center of allegations at the Naval Academy, which is one of the things that kind of got the attention of people outside of the military. What does it do for people who are at service academies? Does it change the rules for them?

SHANE: Sure. One of the key things for all victims is going to be new independent representation for them. So they'll have more legal rights, more representation, the ability to make accusations but not necessarily have to go through that whole procedure, not necessarily appear in court. Defendants will still have a chance to cross examine but not in the - not in the brutal way that we've seen sometimes in the past.

MARTIN: Now if you're just joining us, we're talking about a bill to change the way sexual assaults are handled in the military. This bill passed the Senate yesterday by an overwhelming 97 to 0 vote. Our guest is reporter Leo Shane III of the Military Times. Now this bill was not the only piece of legislation on the issue that the Senate has been looking at. Another bill from New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand narrowly lost a procedural vote last week.

And I think people who've been following this, even kind of casually, I think might have the impression that the Gillibrand bill was the one that had all the steam and the advocates behind it. Now these two lawmakers are both on the same committee. So what was the essential difference between the bill, and why is it that they seem to be so at odds over this?

SHANE: Yeah, that 97 to nothing vote makes it seem like everyone was getting along and everyone was happy with the result here. But this was a pretty bitter fight for the last year. The Gillibrand bill, the key difference was she wanted to really change the way that cases are handled in the military justice system. She wanted to set up independent prosecutors to take care of these sexual assault cases, make sure that they're being prosecuted, make sure that they're being reviewed correctly.

MARTIN: So it would take these cases out of the chain of command...

SHANE: Exactly.

MARTIN: ...And they would all go to independent prosecutors. But these would still have been military prosecutors.

SHANE: These still would have been military prosecutors. But it would have - the allegations that Gillibrand and her supporters made was that the way the system is set up now, you too often have a commander who knows both the victim and the accused. So they're put in this situation of picking which one to believe rather than giving an independent look at what the charges were and what the facts of the case are. So, you know...

MARTIN: But that's the way it works in the civilian world. I mean, in the civilian world, your supervisor - let's just say - let's say you and I both worked at the Military Times, and you and I had a confrontation. And our editor wouldn't be the person to decide that. It would go outside of our workplace.

SHANE: Exactly.

MARTIN: So that was clearly the logic there. Why do you think her logic didn't prevail? And what does McCaskill's bill do to address that complaint or that argument?

SHANE: Well, it should be noted that she did get 55 votes in the Senate, but they needed to clear the 60 vote procedural hurdle. So she has been pointing out that she has majority of folks in the Senate who did like this idea but not quite enough to push it over the top. And what critics, what McCaskill and what the military leaders said was that this was such a radical reform that it would actually take responsibility away from commanders.

It would convince them not to treat sexual assaults as seriously as they have in the past. Their argument was if they don't have to worry about it, they don't have to pay attention to it. They just won't deal with it, and it won't fundamentally change the culture within the military to condemn these acts, to push against them.

MARTIN: So what does the McCaskill bill do that she feels or that her supporters feel is preferable?

SHANE: She feels there's more checks and balances in here. If a commander decides not to pursue a case, there is an independent review that comes along to make sure that that was the right decision. There are more chances for victims to come out and file charges or tell their story, and that's the key they keep hitting. They keep saying if we want to change the culture, we can't be taking folks in the chain of command out and saying you don't need to worry about this, but we need to stop sexual assault.

MARTIN: What is going to make them worry about it? What is going to make commanders in the chain of command, people in the chain of command make this a priority or take this seriously?

SHANE: Well, and that's the giant question. Gillibrand and her supporters have said look, you've tried it this way in the past. We've had this system of military justice. We've told military leaders this needs to be made a priority. And we're still seeing, you know - I think the latest estimates were 26,000 estimated cases of sexual assault or sexual abuse in the military. And only fewer than 4,000 were actually reported. And fewer than 2,000 went to court. So you've got plenty of opportunities, plenty of problems that are out there that aren't coming to light.

MARTIN: What is your assessment based on your reporting of why it is that McCaskill's bill went forward and Gillibrand's did not? Even as you pointed out, it did have support within the Senate. It also had a lot of attention from advocacy groups who seemed to be very supportive of her approach. And McCaskill indicated in interviews that she was a little hurt by this.

SHANE: Yeah.

MARTIN: I mean, she felt that she was kind of on the side of the angels as well. So what is it that you think made her approach prevail?

SHANE: Yeah, she very publicly, right after the vote, said she felt like she was put in a position where it was victims versus commanders, and she was put on the commanders' side. And clearly, she cares very much about the victim side as well. So I think there is a case of numbers here. I mean, you know, both of these sets of reforms are supported by a lot of outside groups. One has a much more radical approach to it. It would involve taking a number of military lawyers, creating a whole separate system, changing the way things have been done, and that met a lot of resistance over at the Pentagon. For on the Senate side, as I said, there were 55 votes in favor of this, and Gillibrand has said she's going to come back. She's going to keep pushing for this. She believes this is the way to approach the issue.

MARTIN: Do you think that, well, what dispositive here was the fact that the military itself favored this approach and also McCaskill being a former prosecutor herself? I mean, do you think that she was just more persuasive? Or was it a seniority question? She'd been there longer, and, perhaps, she just had more relationships with her colleagues that enabled her to be more persuasive on this?

SHANE: We're only talking about a few votes here. So I think all of those played a role in it. I also think that there are few folks who want to wait and see. They want to see if some of the improvements they made with this bill and some of the improvements that were made last year by the House and Senate start to produce some results. And Senator Gillibrand said that as much, too. She thinks that, you know, in six more months, in a year, she might be able to come back with exactly the same language and have five, 10, 15 more senators back her on this.

MARTIN: Where does the bill go from here? We have about a minute left. Tell us what to look forward to to know whether this issue is continuing to maintain its momentum.

SHANE: Yeah, it'll go over to the House next. And the indication so far have been that folks are supportive of a lot of the measures within the McCaskill bill. We could see it rolled into the annual Defense Authorization bill, a couple other things. But the indications I'm hearing are that there's a lot of good in here. There's a lot of things that House members would support and that some version of this will become law.

MARTIN: Any thought about how - do you have any way to assess how servicemembers themselves are reacting to this at this point, even though the issue is still working its way through the Congress? Any sense of how they're reacting?

SHANE: We haven't heard a lot about this. But I know this has just raised the issue to another level. There's been a lot of high-profile scandals in the last few years. And it's certainly something that servicemembers are thinking about and forcing them to think about how they view sexual assault, how they view inappropriate workplace environments - and just one of many changes the military's seen culturally in the last few years.

MARTIN: Leo Shane III is congressional reporter for the Military Times. He was kind enough to join us in our studios in Washington, D.C. Leo, thanks so much for joining us.

SHANE: Oh, thank you, any time.

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