Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. pauses while speakig at a March 6 news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington following a Senate vote on military sexual assaults. The Senate blocked a bill that would have stripped senior military commanders of their authority to prosecute rapes and other serious offenses, capping an emotional, nearly yearlong fight over how best to curb sexual assault in the ranks. (Charles Dharapak / AP)
The Senate on Thursday rejected a proposal to move sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command, instead backing simpler reforms to the military justice system.
Victim advocates lamented the vote, which fell five senators short of advancing past a procedural hurdle, as a lost opportunity and a potentially discouraging message to female service members who face harassment and intimidation.
But opponents of the proposal — among them, Pentagon leaders — called it a well-intentioned overreach that would handicap military efforts to crack down on sexual assaults.
“The strongest, most effective approach we can take to reduce sexual assault is to hold commanders accountable,” said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. “To do this, we must maintain the important authority to prosecute sexual assaults that our military commanders now have, and add greater accountability for those commanders.”
The legislation, sponsored by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would have overhauled sexual assault prosecution in the military by taking the decision of whether to pursue legal action away from commanders, instead giving it to independent prosecutors.
Gillibrand said the move was the only way to ensure that serious crimes were pursued instead of covered up.
Over the course of dozens of hearings and press conferences in the last year, she and supporters chastised a military old-boys network that revictimized sexual assault survivors, convincing many that it was better to stay silent than seek justice.
“Today, many members of the Senate have turned their back on these victims and survivors,” she said after the vote.
But opponents of her plan challenged her victims-vs-commanders narrative, saying that a reform package backed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., was a more reasoned approach to solving the problem.
Her legislation, which sailed through a procedural vote without opposition, is expected to be passed by the full Senate on Monday. It would remove the “good soldier” defense for troops, preventing military character from being used in trials to refute sexual assault claims, and allow victims’ input in whether their cases are tried in military or civilian courts.
McCaskill called the vote on her measure — and the defeat of Gillibrand’s bill — a victory for victims and the military. “We have a laundry list of things that will protect victims, bring perpetrators to justice, and hold our commanders accountable.”
Thursday’s Senate vote came the same day as the start of trial of Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair, accused of forcing a female captain to perform oral sex and threatening to kill her family if she publicly acknowledged their three-year affair.
The case against Sinclair became a cornerstone of a year-long debate about sexual assault in the military, and whether senior defense officials could be trusted to fix systemic cultural problems in the ranks.
In addition, Army officials confirmed Thursday that a lieutenant colonel who supervises sexual assault prosecution for the entire service is under investigation for allegedly groping a female colleague.
McCaskill said she is hopeful House leaders will move ahead with her measure after it passes the Senate next week. Last year, as part of the annual defense authorization bill, Congress passed a host of related sexual assault reforms, including independent legal counsel for victims and mandatory dishonorable discharges for troops convicted of those crimes.
Gillibrand, meanwhile, vowed to continue her fight. She hinted she may push to include the idea in the next defense authorization bill, despite resistance from Senate Armed Services Committee members.
“What we’ve heard from military commanders for 20 years is zero tolerance,” she said, “but what we’ve seen is zero accountability.”