MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. Bipartisanship at the Senate may be seemingly in short supply, but an unlikely alliance has been forged over one issue, sexual assaults in the military. Republican senators Rand Paul and Ted Cruz, two stars of the Tea Party, announced yesterday their support for a measure sponsored by a Democrat, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand.
The bill would give more powers to military prosecutors and remove commanders from the judicial process in certain cases. Here's Senator Paul.
SENATOR RAND PAUL: I see no reason why conservatives shouldn't support this. The only thing, I think, standing in the way is just sort of the status quo.
CORNISH: The proposal, though, faces strong opposition from top military leaders who argue it would undermine the chain of command. The Air Force has been facing a number of high profile sexual assault cases. In response to this, the Air Force recently expanded their sexual assault prevention and response office and appointed a higher ranking officer to lead it.
Major General Margaret Woodward joins me now from the Pentagon. Welcome to the program.
MAJOR GENERAL MARGARET WOODWARD: Thanks, Audie. It's great to be with you today.
CORNISH: So this office has been expanded and reorganized. Give us a sense of some of the changes that your office is making.
WOODWARD: What we're really starting with is assessing and listening to our airmen in the field and our experts, as well. We're reaching out to our own airmen through blogs, web chats, focus groups and surveys because I believe that our airmen have a big part to play in uncovering the answers to this issue. But we're also talking to experts in the field outside the military, in law enforcement and academia, to get their insights into all the dynamics of this issue.
CORNISH: I want to go back to this bill being led by New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. That proposal would give the power to prosecute and pursue sexual assault claims to military lawyers and take away some of the powers from the leaders in the chain of command. Here she is speaking on Capitol Hill yesterday.
SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: If the victims do not trust the chain of command, they will not report these cases. If they've witnessed other people reporting being retaliated against, if they've witnessed other people being shoved out of the military because they've reported these crimes, they will not trust the system that the chain of command has put into place.
CORNISH: Effectively, lawmakers are arguing that the culture in the chain of command allows for sexual crimes to persist and what exactly is the argument here why this shouldn't go to military lawyers, why there shouldn't be more power given to them to step in.
WOODWARD: Well, what I will tell you is I am adamantly for operational commanders retaining the ability to be a part of the justice within their commands. And the reason for that is we're the ones responsible for the health and welfare of our airmen. And so, removing the commanders from the process, I think, will only make things more difficult. I don't think that if you really dissect the elements that are problematic in this issue, that that is one of the bigger elements.
Some of the things that we've been doing to improve accountability are addressing the things that have been problematic in keeping that within the chain of command. And...
CORNISH: But why is that? I mean, effectively lawmakers are saying that victims do not trust the chain of command. That's their central argument.
WOODWARD: I hear that, but that's not what we see in the surveys that we've seen for the Air Force. I'll tell you, when victims are asked why they don't report, to be honest with you, the number one response they give is that they didn't think the issue was significant enough. And, of course, that's not the case, but that's another one of those dynamics of the victims and the way that they see this in retrospect.
They also don't want to be ostracized from their friends and from their unit that is their support network and they're afraid in reporting that that will happen. You know, this is where I get to the assessing and listening, where we need to really find out why reporting isn't being done and then address those issues.
CORNISH: What's been some of the pushback here, areas where people are saying to you, look, this is going to make a difference? Look, you know, a blog or having people talk about these things in a kind of educational campaign isn't what we need to do here.
WOODWARD: What I've come to understand is it really does take a multi-pronged approach and accountability is an important element of that. So we need to make sure the predators that are out there are identified as early as possible and held accountable. And that takes victims that are well supported in their communities and feel comfortable with bringing that forward, you know, that the bottom line here is that we have a society, unfortunately, where we've got a culture that makes it very difficult for victims of this crime to report, often, you know, to even their very close family or friends.
CORNISH: And I can assume that wouldn't this be worse in a military environment?
WOODWARD: Well, we think we can make it better because we have the opportunity - rather than out in society - we have the opportunity to talk to all of our airmen, train them on the dynamics how to respond to a victim when they come forward so that they don't feel like we're blaming them because we aren't. But they understand that we're there to support them and help them through the process.
I think we have an opportunity to actually lead the way in finding solutions to this problem.
CORNISH: Major General Margaret Woodward, thank you so much for speaking with us.
WOODWARD: Oh, well, thanks, Audie. Thanks for everyone's important focus on this topic.
CORNISH: Major General Margaret Woodward, she's director of the U.S. Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response office. She spoke to us from the Pentagon.