Senators Rekindle Debate After High-Profile Military Sexual-Assault Case

"We will work harder than ever in the coming year to strengthen our military by taking sexual assaults and other major crimes out of the chain of command," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wrote. "We will work harder than ever in the coming year to strengthen our military by taking sexual assaults and other major crimes out of the chain of command," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand wrote. Charles Dharapak/AP file photo

One court decision. Two polar-opposite conclusions.

That's the story on Capitol Hill on Monday after sexual-assault charges in a high-profile case against an Army general were thrown out in military court under a plea deal for lesser violations.

The case further fueled Democrats' intra-party fight over how to handle military sexual assault, a struggle that pits New York's Kirsten Gillibrand against Missouri's Claire McCaskill. Following the plea deal, both senators remained as dug in as ever.

Congressional reaction Monday to the dismissal of the charges was swift and divisive. It reinforced familiar battle lines over an ongoing political fight over the proper role for commanders in such cases.

McCaskill contends that the charges that Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair twice forced his former mistress, a captain, into sex acts and threatened to kill her and her family would never have come forward if not for the commander.

"As a former sex-crimes prosecutor, Claire knows how difficult these cases can be, and this case is obviously a complicated one," said McCaskill spokeswoman Sarah Feldman. "But one of its lessons highlights what we already know--that commanders are often more aggressive than prosecutors in pursuing prosecutions."

McCaskill has argued that commanders need to be held accountable and should keep this power, arguing that it is the best way to ensure sexual-assault prosecutions are brought forward. The senator's office argues that if the case had been handled by prosecutors alone, the rape charge would not have been brought forward. It points to reports in The New York Times that a prosecutor in the case resigned after trying to pressure a commander to drop the sexual-assault charges, according to defense lawyers.

"If this court-martial had been handled by prosecutors alone, it would not have gone to trial," said a background memo on the case from McCaskill's office, which was sent to reporters.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the divide, critics who have fought to strip commanders of the power to decide which sexual-assault cases move forward came out arguing the general's plea deal proves the system is broken.

Gillibrand, whose legislation to take the decision to prosecute out of the chain of command failed in the Senate earlier this month, said that the Sinclair case was an example of what's wrong with the system.

In an op-ed in the New York Daily News on Friday, Gillibrand said she was concerned about a report in USA Today that the judge had to temporarily halt the court-martial in the Sinclair case "over fears the commanding officer had rejected a plea deal on lesser charges for political reasons, despite concerns over the evidence."

Although she did not respond immediately to requests for reaction to the Sinclair developments Monday, Gillibrand said in her op-ed that she would continue to fight for the reform.

"We will work harder than ever in the coming year to strengthen our military by taking sexual assaults and other major crimes out of the chain of command—so that no victim is compelled to turn to his or her boss to ask for justice," she wrote. "We need every case to move forward based solely on the evidence and judged solely on the merits, not political pressure or other nonlegal considerations."

Others who share Gillibrand's stance on removing the chain of command spoke up as well.

"This is another example of why commanders shouldn't be deciding whether someone is prosecuted," said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., who has long sought legislation to create a joint military-civilian structure to oversee such cases. "Legal decisions should be made by legal experts, not commanders."

Speier added, "A justice system that is beholden to the whims of a commander is not credible. Even after pleading guilty to several sordid offenses, I am certain Sinclair will be sent home with a generous pension paid by taxpayers who expect their military leaders to serve honorably."

Stay up-to-date with federal news alerts and analysis — Sign up for GovExec's email newsletters.
Close [ x ] More from GovExec

Thank you for subscribing to newsletters from
We think these reports might interest you:

  • Sponsored by G Suite

    Cross-Agency Teamwork, Anytime and Anywhere

    Dan McCrae, director of IT service delivery division, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

  • Data-Centric Security vs. Database-Level Security

    Database-level encryption had its origins in the 1990s and early 2000s in response to very basic risks which largely revolved around the theft of servers, backup tapes and other physical-layer assets. As noted in Verizon’s 2014, Data Breach Investigations Report (DBIR)1, threats today are far more advanced and dangerous.

  • Sponsored by One Identity

    One Nation Under Guard: Securing User Identities Across State and Local Government

    In 2016, the government can expect even more sophisticated threats on the horizon, making it all the more imperative that agencies enforce proper identity and access management (IAM) practices. In order to better measure the current state of IAM at the state and local level, Government Business Council (GBC) conducted an in-depth research study of state and local employees.

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    The Next Federal Evolution of Cloud

    This GBC report explains the evolution of cloud computing in federal government, and provides an outlook for the future of the cloud in government IT.

  • Sponsored by LTC Partners, administrators of the Federal Long Term Care Insurance Program

    Approaching the Brink of Federal Retirement

    Approximately 10,000 baby boomers are reaching retirement age per day, and a growing number of federal employees are preparing themselves for the next chapter of their lives. Learn how to tackle the challenges that today's workforce faces in laying the groundwork for a smooth and secure retirement.

  • Sponsored by Hewlett Packard Enterprise

    Cyber Defense 101: Arming the Next Generation of Government Employees

    Read this issue brief to learn about the sector's most potent challenges in the new cyber landscape and how government organizations are building a robust, threat-aware infrastructure

  • Sponsored by Aquilent

    GBC Issue Brief: Cultivating Digital Services in the Federal Landscape

    Read this GBC issue brief to learn more about the current state of digital services in the government, and how key players are pushing enhancements towards a user-centric approach.


When you download a report, your information may be shared with the underwriters of that document.