Overhauling the Military-Justice System

A female cadet walks on campus at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. A female cadet walks on campus at the United States Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Mike Groll/AP File Photo

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, has a long record of working to stop sexual assault both in Alaska and in the armed services. This year she readily signed on to three different bills to combat sexual assault in the military. But she paused when it came to a sweeping bill that would take the decision-making power over which cases get prosecuted out of the hands of commanders.

On Wednesday, Murkowski became the 16th cosponsor and fourth Republican senator to sign onto a bill introduced last week by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, that would radically reform the military-justice system. The bill aims to strike middle ground between taking the cases out of military jurisdiction entirely and the status quo. To do this, the measure would leave decision-making about prosecutions within the military-justice system, but remove it from the chain of command.

In an interview with National Journal Daily, Murkowski said she took some time to seriously consider the bill, which is making waves among senior leaders of a long-entrenched military hierarchy and its advocates on Capitol Hill.

“There are several bills out there we’ve been working on,” she said. “I’ve signed on to three previous to the Gillibrand bill and I kind of held off. I didn’t get on Gillibrand immediately because I wanted to really look critically at the changes that she was suggesting.”

“When you are talking about essentially moving that oversight out of the chain of command—that is some very substantive reform to a military system that you don’t take lightly," Murkowski said. "You want to make sure that this is the right thing.”

Recent horror stories have put the problem squarely on the agenda for the Obama administration and congressional leaders. Among the examples making headlines are commanders overturning sexual-assault convictions without explanation; military leaders whose job is to combat sexual assault being accused of perpetrating such crimes themselves; and the military’s own statistics on the number of assaults sharply rising, but with victims reporting less than 10 percent of the time, largely out of fears of retaliation and expectations that justice won’t be served.

On Thursday, the Army acknowledged another case: Female cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point were secretly videotaped in the shower, or undressing, allegedly by a sergeant on the staff.

“I’ve just heard too much, I’ve read too much, to just kind of say, ‘Well, maybe we just need to nibble around the edges here on this,' ” Murkowski said. “The system has not been working. The number of victims that we see that are coming forward is evidence that it is not working. And so if we need to reform the military-justice system in this way, I’m prepared to take that step.”

Murkowski, who serves on the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, said that Army officials who testified on their fiscal year 2014 budget this week spent a great deal of time discussing their intention to address the problem. “I am pleased that everyone is talking about it now—that it really is in the forefront of the conversation—but it has got to be more than talk,” Murkowski said. “It has to be action. It needs to be implemented. It needs to be resolved. I think it is going to take some structural change because you just can’t talk about this.”

She added that the threat of legislation might light a fire under senior Defense officials.

“It’s good to see these legislative approaches come forward because that is also going to be a very direct reminder to our military leadership that we are taking this very, very seriously,” she said. “We know that they are too, but sometimes to put these reforms in place, you need the legislation."

Murkowski acknowledged that such significant changes to the military-justice system would be extremely “hard” and would likely take a long, multiyear effort. But she also stressed that it’s important that lawmakers stay focused. “Business as usual," she said, "is not acceptable."

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