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."

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 GovExec.com.
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.