WASHINGTON — Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand thinks the expected two-month delay in a Senate vote on proposals to address the issue of sexual assault in the military is good for her and her allies who are trying to change the military justice system so that felony cases are handled outside the chain of command.
“I welcome the time because I need to meet one-on-one with many of my colleagues to make sure they are fully briefed on the facts of the issue,” Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said in an interview. “When I do meet one-on-one with my colleagues we’ve actually had very productive meetings that have resulted in support of our measure. I think this is an issue where the facts speak for themselves. And when victims’ voices are heard overwhelmingly people want to side with the victims and create a measure of transparency and objectivity in how these cases are reviewed and how they go to trial.”
Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill, a fellow Democrat who serves on the Senate Armed Services Committee with Gillibrand, has been the most outspoken senator in opposition to Gillibrand’s proposal.
McCaskill held a news conference Thursday to defend the approach that was adopted by the Senate Armed Services Committee.
A majority of members voted for a proposal by Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., that calls for an automatic higher-level review of any decision by a commander not to prosecute a sexual assault allegation.
“I’ve been disappointed at some of the characterizations of the proposal that are unfair and twisted,” McCaskill said in an interview. “And frankly, their arguments keep shifting.”
McCaskill said the committee’s legislation expands the rights of sexual assault victims and gives them eight or nine options for where to report the incident.
“They can report to the sexual assault and assistance offices,” said McCaskill. “They can report to the clinic, medical personnel. And the minute they report anywhere, they’re assigned their own lawyer in our own bill. And that lawyer says, ‘I’m your lawyer. I’m your counselor. Here’s your options. You can have a restricted report, an unrestricted report. You can prefer charges yourself. Forget about the commander. You can prefer charges yourself.’ “
Senators on both sides of the debate say the split involves a bipartisan disagreement by people of good faith with different approaches.
Even so, McCaskill observed, “I think a lot of senators are confused at this point.”
McCaskill said at her news conference that she and Gillibrand have been “joined at the hip” and are still talking about ways to resolve their different approaches.
McCaskill is a former county prosecutor who says she has cried with more victims of sexual abuse than any other member of the Senate.
Gillibrand, also an attorney, chairs the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, which earlier this year heard testimony from victims of sexual assaults in the military and their advocates. They testified that most victims don’t report the incidents. Some come forward after they are discharged from the military. Victims also told of cases of retaliation and a lack of trust in commanders.
The Defense Department estimated there are 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact annually, but doesn’t have a breakdown of how many involve assaults, harassment or other types of contact. But 90 percent of the cases go unreported.
That’s why victims’ advocacy groups want a dramatic overhaul of how the military handles sexual abuse.
Members of the Senate Armed Services Committee have given broad support to a number of changes, including a requirement that each military service establish a special victims’ counsel, and for each branch to develop guidelines for the temporary reassignment of any active duty service member who is accused of sexual assault.
But senators are split over the issue of whether to allow commanders to continue to be involved in the decision whether to pursue the prosecution of a sexual assault case.
The showdown will come when the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act reaches the Senate floor. That won’t happen until mid-September or October because Congress is scheduled to begin its summer recess Aug. 2
Gillibrand’s Military Justice Improvement Act has 38 Senate cosponsors. Her office says 44 senators support the proposal. Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut and Republican Sens. Rand Paul of Kentucky and Ted Cruz of Texas recently joined Gillibrand at a news conference to highlight the legislation’s bipartisan support.
Gillibrand’s office issued a statement Thursday, about two hours after McCaskill’s news conference. Responding to McCaskill’s argument that victims already can report assaults outside of the chain of the command, Gillibrand’s press release pointed out that each report “ultimately ends up on the desk of the commander who becomes the sole decision-maker over whether a case moves forward. The commander holds all the cards regardless of where the crime is reported and it is this bias in the system that keeps victims from coming forward and reporting the crime anywhere because they do not believe they can receive justice.”
McCaskill was asked if the two-month wait for a vote benefits her side or Gillibrand’s.
“I’m not going to get into the handicapping and the horse race here,” she said. “This is way too important. And I hope every senator takes the time to look at this issue.”