Military Commanders Retain Powers in Sexual Assault Cases

Susan Walsh/AP

Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin has killed a proposal that would have taken away military commanders' control in deciding whether to prosecute sexual assault cases and given it to an independent prosecutor. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand championed the reform as a way to increase reporting and prosecution of sexual assault in the military — noting that reporting of sexual assaults went up by 80 percent in Israel when its military adopted a similar rule. But in a Senate hearing earlier this month, several military commanders insisted that no major changes were necessary. Levin apparently agreed, eliminating the bipartisan proposal, which had 27 co-sponsors, from the Defense Authorization Act on Tuesday night, NBC News' Andrea Mitchell and Alastair Jamieson report. Levin will likely opt for a weaker proposal, from Sen. Claire McCaskill, that prevents commanders from overturning a court martial conviction.

In the Senate hearing, Air Force Col. Jeannie Leavitt testified that senators should "allow a commander to command by allowing them to enforce the standards they set." Marine Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary said, "Whether it's an enemy on the battlefield or sexual assault in the barracks, good order and discipline is just as important." While they wanted the responsibility to set those standards, they would not take responsibility for a military culture that failed to meet those standards an estimated 26,000 times last year. Levin sided with military commanders' argument that if they just keep doing the same thing, something will change.

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