WASHINGTON (AP) — Military commanders must remain part of the legal process in dealing with major crimes in the ranks such as sexual assault, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel told lawmakers Wednesday.
Hagel's remarks came as Congress weighs legislative proposals to deal with the epidemic of sexual assaults in the armed forces. His comments are a tacit endorsement for a proposal by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., that would undercut ambitious legislation to halt the growing number of sexual assaults by overhauling the military justice system. Levin is the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The legislation pushed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial. That judgment would rest instead with seasoned trial lawyers with prosecutorial experience. Her bill also would take away a commander's authority to convene a court-martial. That responsibility would be given to new and separate offices outside the victim's chain of command.
Gillibrand and her supporters have argued that major changes are needed to transform military culture and ensure victims of sexual assault that if they report a crime their allegations won't be discounted and they won't face retaliation.
But Levin and other lawmakers, echoing fears voiced by the Joint Chiefs of Staff, believe that cutting commanders out of the legal process would undermine their ability to enforce good order and discipline within the ranks.
"Anything that Congress does needs to be done thoughtfully because there will be consequences to anything that comes out of this, as to how we handle this in the future," Hagel told the Senate Budget Committee. "I don't personally believe that you can eliminate the command structure in the military from this process. Because it is the culture, it is the institution — it's the people within that institution that have to fix the problem."
The Armed Services Committee is scheduled to meet Wednesday to decide on which sexual assault prevention measures to include in its version of the sweeping defense policy bill for the 2014 fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.
Levin's alternative, which has bipartisan support, would require a review by an individual higher in the chain of command if a commander decides not to prosecute a sexual assault case. It would make it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault and relieve commanders of their responsibilities if they do not create a climate receptive for victims who report crimes.
If the committee approves Levin's plan, backers of Gillibrand's bill have promised to continue fighting for her proposal when the defense policy bill moves to the Senate floor.
Gillibrand has so far garnered 28 cosponsors that include Sens. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Chuck Grassley of Iowa, the Judiciary Committee's top Republican, Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Dianne Feinstein, chairwoman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, and Thomas Carper, D-Del., chairman of the Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.
Mikulski has called Gillibrand's bill "bold" and "out of the box."
Another cosponsor of Gillibrand's bill, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said several U.S. allies have already taken serious cases outside the chain of command and the committee should follow suit.