Senators Lead Push To Change Military's Sexual Assault Policy

New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand is sponsoring legislation cracking down on sexual assault in the military.

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This afternoon, President Obama met with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to discuss the problem of sexual assault in the military.

PRESIDENT BARACK OBAMA: Not only is a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make, and has made, our military less effective than it can be. And as such, it is dangerous to our national security.

BLOCK: The meeting came on the same day that Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, along with other lawmakers, introduced legislation to change the way the military handles assaults. The bill would give military prosecutors, not commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault cases should go to trial. NPR's Ailsa Chang explains.

AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: In 1996, Jennifer Norris was 24. She had just joined the Air Force, hadn't even left for basic training yet, when a recruiter invited her to a squadron function. Norris says she was drugged there, then raped. She didn't report the crime because she assumed her attacker was tight with her commander, so she'd only face retaliation or blame.

SGT. JENNIFER NORRIS: Instead, the best option for me was to try and endure it, to suck it up and try and make it till I could get transferred somewhere else, only to have it happen over and over again, like a recurring nightmare. Sorry.

CHANG: Norris told her story at a press conference to highlight disturbing statistics now propelling lawmakers like Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.

SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: If we have 26,000 sexual assaults and rapes every year in the military and only 3,000 victims are willing to report, you have a huge structural problem.

CHANG: Gillibrand's referring to reports the Pentagon released this month, suggesting almost 90 percent of victims who were sexually assaulted don't report the crime. She and other lawmakers believe one way to encourage people to talk is to let military prosecutors, rather than commanders, decide which sexual assault cases to try.

That's what today's proposal would do. And it would apply to any crime with a sentence of one year or more, except crimes that are uniquely military in nature, like going AWOL. Democratic Senator Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut says military prosecutors are just better trained to make decisions about criminal justice.

SENATOR RICHARD BLUMENTHAL: The decision whether to charge and what to charge are often as important as the conviction. They make or break somebody's life, and they have consequences well beyond the numbers of years that someone serves in prison.

CHANG: So far, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said he's open to options on how to address sexual assault in the military, but he hasn't yet expressed support for today's proposal. He has said he's willing to limit a commander's ability to overturn a military judge's ruling in a sexual assault case. But military scholars say also preventing commanders from deciding which cases go to trial would be a huge break from longtime tradition.

EUGENE FIDELL: It was there in 1775 when King George III promulgated Articles of War. We inherited those Articles of War.

CHANG: Gene Fidell teaches military justice at Yale Law School. He says the main argument the military uses is that the current regime establishes good order and discipline. It's this notion that a commander's authority must be vast.

FIDELL: They argue that if a commander can send troops into harm's way, possibly at the cost of their lives, then it follows that commanders must also have the ability to decide who gets prosecuted for what. In my view, the one doesn't follow from the other. If that were true, then because commanders are responsible for the health of their personnel, you'd also have admirals and generals performing appendectomies. No thanks.

CHANG: Fidell points to other countries with similar legal systems that have already stripped commanders of the power to make trial decisions, among them Britain, Canada and Israel. Ailsa Chang, NPR News, the Capitol.

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