Military seeks to temper military justice overhaul

Monday - 6/3/2013, 6:22pm EDT

FILE – In this May 17, 2013 file photo Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Martin Dempsey, speaks during a Pentagon news conference about sexual assaults in the military, among other topics. Dempsey and the four-star chiefs of the services are scheduled to testify Tuesday, June 4, 2013, at a high-stakes Senate hearing on congressional proposals to modify the military justice system to stem the flow of the escalating number of sexual assaults that have outraged Republicans and Democrats on Capitol Hill. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

RICHARD LARDNER
Associated Press

WASHINGTON (AP) -- The military's top uniformed leaders will seek to temper calls for a drastic overhaul of the military justice system as Congress demands fast answers to the growing epidemic of sexual assaults within the armed forces.

Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the four-star officers atop each service are scheduled to testify Tuesday at a high-stakes Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on proposals that would trim the authority that American military commanders have to discipline the forces that they lead. Dempsey and other senior Pentagon officials have said they are open to legislative solutions to a problem they acknowledge is serious and that has outraged lawmakers from both parties on Capitol Hill.

But the military is deeply concerned that curbing too sharply a commander's ability to decide how and when to punish or pardon service members will send a message there is lack of faith in the officer corps, and that in turn will undermine the efficiency and effectiveness of the military in peacetime and war, Dempsey warned in a recent letter to Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"Because of the tremendous responsibility placed in commanders, they must also have broad authority to enforce discipline and execute their duties," Dempsey wrote.

Paradoxically, the Defense Department's failure so far to change the military's male-dominated culture is driving a vocal group of lawmakers led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to advocate aggressive reforms.

Tinkering at the edges, they argue, won't produce the seismic shift needed to send the message that sexist attitudes and behaviors will no longer be tolerated. Victims need to be confident that if they report a crime their allegations won't be discounted and they won't face retaliation.

The latest in a string of allegations came Friday.

The Pentagon said the U.S. Naval Academy is investigating allegations that three football team members sexually assaulted a female midshipman at an off-campus house more than a year ago, and a lawyer for the woman says she was "ostracized" on campus after she reported it.

The Naval Academy investigation follows several recent arrests: A soldier at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point was charged with secretly photographing women, including in a bathroom. The Air Force officer who led the service's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit was arrested on charges of groping a woman. And the manager of the Army's sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., was relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife.

The Pentagon estimated in a report last month that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2012, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims are still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.

Those numbers and outrage over two recent decisions by Air Force generals overturning juries' guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases are generating support for Gillibrand's proposal to largely strip commanding officers of the power to toss out a verdict, a change initially recommended in April by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and backed by Dempsey, the service chiefs and many members of Congress.

But Gillibrand's bill goes much farther -- too far, according to Dempsey. It would remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial. That judgment would rest with seasoned trial counsels who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or above.

Her legislation, which has 18 cosponsors that include four Republicans, 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.

"The current system allowing commanders to have sole discretion in the disposition of legal matters is clearly broken and has a chilling effect on reporting," said Gillibrand, who chairs the Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee. "We must ... increase accountability within the system by removing the influence of the chain of command in the prosecution of intolerable crimes."

In a May 20 letter to Levin, Dempsey said taking away a commander's ability to convene a court-martial would "radically" alter a principal tenet of military law dating back more than two centuries and merged more than 60 years ago into a single Uniform Code of Military Justice.