"If it had not been for the commander, that case would have been over," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said.

"If it had not been for the commander, that case would have been over," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., said. Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP

Two Senators, Two Different Lessons from a General's Sexual Assault Case

Case became a lightning rod during chain-of-command debates in Congress.

Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand and Claire McCaskill have been at war over how the military should handle sexual assault since last year. Both commented Thursday on the recently resolved case against Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, but his example doesn't bolster either of their positions about reform.

Sinclair was sentenced in March to a $20,000 fine for engaging in an adulterous relationship with his accuser and abusing a government credit card. He was originally charged with sexual assault, and his case played out under a microscope while Gillibrand and McCaskill debated reform in Congress. Because a judge ruled that Sinclair's court-martial was unduly influenced by the Pentagon, Sinclair was allowed to take a plea bargain that involved dropping the sexual assault charges. Gillibrand calls this justice not served. McCaskill sees the bright side.

In an interview with USA Today published Thursday, Gillibrand sighs:

It's infuriating, because you don't see justice being done. You see a system that's not working for anybody. ... If [Sinclair] had received a conviction, he would have had jail time. That certainly would have made me feel a lot better, if he had gone to jail.

Gillibrand wants to take sexual assault cases outside the military chain of command. Her bill that would have accomplished that failed by five votes in the Senate earlier this year.

McCaskill maintains that the chain of command is necessary to get criminals convicted, even though Sinclair was not convicted of sexual assault. In a meeting with Army officials Thursday, she explained:

If it had not been for the commander, that case would have been over. ... As much as people were outraged about the sentence, I want to make very clear that this was not an example where it should be some kind of mark on the side of a ledger that we should be doing away with command involvement in cases. Just the opposite.

Unfortunately for McCaskill and Gillibrand, the Sinclair case doesn't really speak to either of their positions. The person who unwittingly stopped the court proceedings was not the accuser's commander, but her special victims advocate. That advocate, Captain Cassie L. Fowler, urged the prosecution in an email not to offer Sinclair a plea bargain, which the judge found to be undue influence.

Both McCaskill and Gillibrand support the newly instated Special Victims Counsel program, which gives victims of sexual assault an advocate during the court-martial process. McCaskill said today that Fowler did nothing wrong by sending that email — she was doing the job she was called to do. By all accounts, the SVC program has helped other victims. 

So the senators can't blame Fowler, and really, they can't blame or praise the chain of command in this instance, either. Sinclair's case became a lightning rod during chain-of-command debates in Congress, but the fact that he got a slap on the wrist wasn't the fault of commanders. The prosecution was also not particularly helped by the victim's commanders.

If anything, Gillibrand and McCaskill could blame the judge for Sinclair's light sentencing, but there's not much they can do with that in terms of reform. Chain-of-command is the debate, and Sinclair's case is the most high-profile one to date. It just doesn't make much sense to talk about them in the same breath anymore. 

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