Was the military sexual assault hearing stacked against major changes?

The tone of questioning at Tuesday's Senate Armed Services Committee hearing left little doubt that there will be action soon on the issue of sexual assault in the military. But the witness list seemed stacked against one of the bolder proposals -- a push by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) to take serious sexual assault cases out of the military's chain of command.

 Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) (EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS)
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) (EPA/MICHAEL REYNOLDS)

There were 20 witnesses at the eight-hour hearing, and all but two of them supported keeping these cases within the military justice system.

Under Gillibrand's proposal, military prosecutors would handle the decision to take a case to court-martial for all serious crimes except those that are uniquely military in nature. Military chiefs of staff would have the power to establish courts, empanel juries and pick judges, and commanders would not be able to overturn convictions or reduce sentences.

The bill has 18 cosponsors, including four Republicans. But it was clear from Tuesday's hearing that Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the committee chairman, was skeptical. In his opening statement, he repeatedly argued that the problem of sexual assault in the military could be solved only through the chain of command.

“Only the chain of command,” he said, can change “an unacceptable military culture.” And “only the chain of command can establish a zero-tolerance policy for sexual offenses.”

The military chiefs and commanders who testified Tuesday agreed, repeatedly arguing that taking these cases out of the chain of command would undermine the authority critical to the military system and have unintended and harmful consequences.

Gillibrand's office encouraged the inclusion of victims of sexual assault and their advocates in the hearing. Two advocates spoke -- Nancy Parrish of Protect Our Defenders and Anu Bhagwati, the co-founder and executive director of Service Women's Action Network. But they appeared in the last of three long panels. And they were joined by two military experts who cautioned against going outside the chain of command.

“Today’s hearing was dominated by military personnel, without one sexual assault survivor testifying," said Rep. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), a co-sponsor of Gillibrand's bill. "Of the 20 witnesses, only two were from advocacy organizations that fight for change."

Gillibrand did hold her own subcommittee hearing in March that featured several members of the military who were victims of sexual abuse.

But the way the full committee hearing was conducted suggests better prospects for a proposal from Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), which would make it more difficult to reverse convictions for sexual-assault crimes and some other reforms, than for Gillibrand's more dramatic overhaul.

Rachel Weiner covers local politics for The Washington Post.
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