Congress approves reforms to address sexual assault, rape in military

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The Pentagon building. (STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)
December 19, 2013

Congress passed a broad set of changes to U.S. military personnel policy late Thursday, forcing the Pentagon to revamp how it deals with cases of sexual assault and rape in the ranks.

The changes would be a victory for the estimated tens of thousands of troops who have been sexually abused in recent years, as well as a triumph for the growing number of women serving in Congress, who pushed for reform.

“I think the bill is a significant step forward,” Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said Thursday before the vote.

Such crimes have surged in recent years; the Pentagon estimates that 26,000 troops were assaulted or raped last year. But only a fraction of them, about 3,300, filed reports with military police or prosecutors in that time period.

Angered by the increase in cases and the lack of reporting them, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) and a bipartisan coalition in the House drafted proposals to address the problem. There was particular outrage when an Air Force general stepped in to overturn the sexual-assault conviction of a star fighter pilot.

Their proposals are part of the annual defense policy bill that was passed 84 to 15 late Thursday in the Senate. The legislation would end the statute of limitations for cases of sexual assault or rape; bar military commanders from overturning jury convictions in sexual assault and rape cases; make it a crime to retaliate against people who report such crimes; mandate the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of such crimes; and give civilian defense officials more control over prosecutions.

Although significant, the changes would stop short of what some advocates want. Gillibrand is pushing to remove military commanders from any involvement in assault and rape cases and have them instead assigned to specialized, independent military prosecutors. For months, she has met with nearly every other senator to lobby them to support her plan, which the Senate is expected to vote on next year.

But supporters say the reforms are the most extensive rewrite of the Uniform Code of Military Justice since the armed forces were integrated — and the most notable change since lawmakers agreed to end the ban on openly gay troops three years ago.

President Obama is expected to sign the legislation. Once the changes are implemented, “we will have the most victim-friendly criminal justice system in the world,” McCaskill said in a recent interview.

“We’re going to have competent outside investigations, we’re going to have trained outside prosecutors, we’re going to have the victims with their own lawyers and we’re going to have a check on the commanders — not only in the way they’re evaluated but also in the way their decisions are reviewed and we’re removing from the commanders any ability to screw around after the courts have found their verdicts. It’s remarkable what we’re going to get done,” she said.

The annual defense spending bill sets Pentagon policy and military pay levels. After months of delay, House and Senate leaders agreed last week to rush approval of the National Defense Authorization Act to ensure that military paychecks would be distributed on time in the new year.

The measure authorizes about $552 billion in defense spending and $81 billion for overseas operations, including the ongoing drawdown of U.S. forces in Afghanistan. The legislation also authorizes a 1 percent pay increase for service members and sets other combat pay and benefits.

The bill seeks once again to block the Obama administration from transferring terrorism suspects to the United States from the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. But it also gives President Obama the flexibility to send some prisoners to other countries. This year, the measure authorized money to help destroy chemical weapons in Syria.

But the reform effort for sexual assault and rape cases took center stage this year.

The issue reached a pinnacle in June, when the uniformed leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and Coast Guard made a joint appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee to face hours of uncomfortable, often confrontational questions about what many described as an epidemic of sexual abuse in the military. They sparred, especially with Gillibrand, who suggested that sexism and purposeful ignorance had contributed to the problem.

“Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force,” she said. “Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together.”

The result was a cascade of attention for the issue that almost ensured that some changes would have to be included in the final defense bill.

But Gillibrand and McCaskill have since split over what more the Pentagon should do. While Gillibrand rallied more than 50 senators to support her proposal, McCaskill said it goes too far, arguing that it would not work as intended. Instead, she is pushing a series of smaller reforms, including more stringent civilian review of disagreements between military prosecutors and commanders.

Despite their differences, the senators insist that they remain united in their commitment to improving conditions for troops who have been sexually assaulted or raped while serving in uniform.

And their fight is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. News reports this week revealed that Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the Air Force general who originally sparked concerns about assault cases, had been removed from overseeing another sexual assault case after declining to court-martial a fighter pilot accused of rape.

Ed O’Keefe is a congressional reporter with The Washington Post and covered the 2008 and 2012 presidential and congressional elections.
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