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Military Leaders Defend Commanders' Powers Over Prosecution of Sexual Assault

Chain of command is key to cultural change, key Democrat says.

Senate Armed Services Committee leaders offered a full-throated defense of military commanders to address the spiraling problem of sexual assault in the military at a hearing on Tuesday.

Signalling how tough any significant rewrite of the military justice system will be, both Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and the panel's ranking member Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., offered an unequivocal defense of the power of commanders. They argued commanders are in the best position to take the lead in eradicating sexual assault and should be held responsible for it--not be taken out of the power structure to fix it.

That point of view is an implicit rejection of a bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would take the decision of whether to prosecute sexual assault cases out of the chain of command.

The power of commanders to run the military justice system has been called into question given the steady increase of sexual assaults in the military to 26,000 last year from 19,000 the year before, but with less than 10 percent reporting the incidents, largely out of fear of retaliation and lack of faith that justice will be served.

Commanders currently enjoy wide latitude to decide which sexual assault cases to pursue and how to handle them, with the discretion to impose minor slaps on the wrist like hard labor in some cases.

But even before top Pentagon brass testifying before the panel uniformly argued that commanders need to retain power to administer the military justice system in order to maintain good order and discipline of the unit--the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman and ranking member did it for them.

"The key to cultural change in the military is the chain of command," Levin said. "The military services are hierarchical organizations: The tone is set from the top of that chain, the message comes from the top, and accountability rests at the top."

"But addressing a systemic problem like sexual assault requires action by all within that chain, and especially by the commanders of the units," he added. "Only the chain of command has the authority needed to address any problems with command climate that foster or tolerate sexual assaults. Only the chain of command can protect victims of sexual assaults, by ensuring that they are appropriately separated from the alleged perpetrators during the investigation and prosecution of a case. And only the chain of command can be held accountable if it fails to change an unacceptable military culture."

Levin argued, "The chain of command has achieved cultural change before, … and they can do it again."

Inhofe offered similar support of commanders.

"There is a suggestion that commanders haven't done a good job of preserving good order and discipline or effectively overseeing the conduct of their forces. But the record does not reflect this," Inhofe said.

He added that taking away the power of commanders to determine which cases to prosecute would hurt the military and not solve the problem.

"We must never take this vital readiness tool from our commanders," Inhofe said. "It is vitally important that we make sexual assault culturally unacceptable in our military. But no change is possible without commanders as agents of that change."