Military sex assault bill gains steam in Congress

Wednesday - 7/17/2013, 4:28pm EDT

By Cogan Schneier
Special to Federal News Radio

Bipartisan support is growing for the Military Justice Improvement Act, an amendment that is scheduled to be offered as part of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) by Sen. Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).

In a press conference Tuesday, Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas) announced their support for the amendment that would change the system for reporting and prosecuting sexual assault cases in the military.

The Military Justice Improvement Act would shift the decision to prosecute crimes punishable by one year or more in confinement to independent military prosecutors outside of the chain of command. Currently, commanders choose whether to prosecute sexual assault cases.

"Our service members deserve the opportunity to report assaults without fear of retaliation and to face a fair military justice system. I am pleased this bipartisan group of my colleagues are rallying behind these changes to fight sexual assaults in the military," said Sen. Mazie Hirono, (D-Hawaii) in a press release.

Paul and Cruz joined the 33 senators who make up the coalition to support the amendment, which was announced by Gillibrand and 18 others May 16.

The bill is one of several geared at addressing the sexual assault issue in the military. The Senate Armed Services Committee held a hearing June 5 on the issue. Witnesses included Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Opponents to the Military Justice Improvement Act, including Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), say the best way to change the culture around sexual assault in the military is through the chain of command.

"The key to cultural change in the military is the chain of command," Levin said at the hearing. "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. Only the chain of command can establish a 'zero tolerance' policy for sexual offenses."

DoD's growing concern with the issue of sexual assault in the military came to a head when its annual report showed more than 3,000 cases in fiscal 2012.

Last week, the Defense Department Inspector General released a report showing the military lacked the ability to follow investigation procedures in some sexual assault cases in 2010. DoD has expressed concern about the accountability of commanders in dealing with such cases.

The IG report, issued July 9, stated that Military Criminal Investigative Organizations (MCIOs) were deficient in interviewing techniques and evidence collection in 2010. Of the cases the IG investigated, 89 percent met or exceeded investigative standards. Additionally, 56 of the 501 cases had significant deficiencies that could have affected the outcome of the investigation.

The report touched on issues within the Army Criminal Investigation Command (CID), Air Force Office of Special Investigations (AFOSI) and the Navy Criminal Investigation Service (NCIS).

The report said MCIOs did not fully document interviews and that important information about assaults was sometimes omitted in documentation.

"Investigative interviews, for all the MCIOs, could benefit from increased emphasis on thoroughness by supervisors, training and policy improvements," the report said.

The report also stated that some MCIO policies regarding collection of physical evidence, crime scene examinations, and legal coordination and records checks needed to be improved.

Specifically, the report cited instances where investigators failed to collect clothing items worn by subjects and victims after incidents occurred. The report suggested that both NCIS and AFOSI change their policy in terms of evidence collections.

"NCIS and AFOSI policy regarding the collection of clothing articles worn by the victim and suspect during the assault is not directive or authoritative and allows investigators discretion as to when and what pieces of physical evidence they must collect," the report stated.

MCIOs agreed with most of the report's recommendations. In their comments, however, NCIS expressed concern that the IG evaluated its investigations based on policies that did not exist in 2010, and that the report does not reflect the current sexual assault investigation program.

The IG said results provide a "snapshot" of the program for 2010 only.

The Military Justice Improvement Act will be offered to the NDAA when it is debated on the Senate floor, which is expected at the end of July.

Cogan Schneier is an intern for Federal News Radio.

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