Military sex assault "culture" needs new laws to change, lawmakers say

Gillibrand, Speier on "corrosive" military sexual abuse crisis
Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., voice support for legislation that would remove the responsibility for adjudicating sexual abuse cases in the military from the chain of command and place it instead in the hands of military prosecutors.
Susan Walsh

Two lawmakers leading the fight to stop sexual assault in the military told "Face the Nation" on Sunday that the military has "dropped the ball" in its handling of sexual abuse cases, touting legislation that would empower trained military prosecutors - rather than the chain of command - to investigate and adjudicate sexual assault cases.

The current system that allows commanders to respond to sexual assault allegations, said Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is rife with the potential for conflicts of interest.

"Typically, with the chain of command, you have someone who knows the assailant, may even be the assailant, or is also concerned about a promotion," said Speier. "And having something under your watch take place that's a violent crime may not look too good when it comes time to be promoted. So historically, what's happened is they found ways around it. Either non-judicial punishment, or saying to the victim, 'You know what? We think you have a personality disorder. So we're going to give you an honorable discharge, but you're going to leave.'"'

That system, Gillibrand argued, has created a "fear of retaliation" among victims of sexual assault who may be reluctant to report abuse.

"That's what the victims are telling us, that they have such fear of retaliation, such fear of having their careers be derailed, that they aren't reporting," she said. "And until you see justice being done, until you see accountability in the system, you will not be able to change the culture."

Gillibrand has introduced legislation that she said would introduce more "transparency, accountability, and objectivity" into the process by charging trained military prosecutors - rather than commanders - with the handling of sexual abuse cases. She noted that a number of U.S. allies, like Israel and the United Kingdom, have already made such a change.

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Under her legislation, Gillibrand said, the decision to bring a sexual abuse case to trial would rest "with a trained military prosecutor. And in that way, there's objectivity. They're going to base it on the facts of the case and nothing else. No pressure about their own promotion. No bias, perhaps, because they know the perpetrator or know the victim." She expressed her hope that such a change would "instill more confidence by the victim, in the system, that he or she has a chance to receive justice."

Gillibrand took pains to emphasize that it's "not just a woman's issue," pointing out the fact that more than half of the victims of sexual abuse in the military are men.

She said that the "crisis" of sexual assault has had a "corrosive" impact on the military, undermining the "integrity" and the "military readiness" of the U.S. armed forces.

"You're not going to be as strong as you would be otherwise, if you have this within the ranks," she said.

But despite the estimated 26,000 unwanted sexual assaults per year in the military - of which only 3,300 are reported - military leaders been "enablers" of the epidemic by failing to move aggressively to stop it, Speier argued.

"They're enablers, because this has been a problem for 25 years," she said. "And for 25 years, they've trotted up to Capitol Hill, they sat in committee hearings, and they've said all the right things. Zero tolerance. But then the scandals keep happening."

Earlier on the show, Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., argued: "No problem gets solved in the military without the chain of command, and I don't want to let the chain of command off the hook. We need to make sure that they have additional responsibilities and checks to make sure that these cases are prosecuted."

Ayotte said she expects the Senate will "come up with a strong solution" to address the problem "this week."

"We're not letting this go," she said. "We've got to solve this. Status quo is unacceptable."