“There’s a shift in the debate, that we need real reform and accountability,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “The recent cases have demonstrated just how severe the problem is.”
Gillibrand said she will introduce a bill Thursday that would rewrite military law by removing the authority of commanders to decide whether to investigate and prosecute serious crimes, including sexual assault. The authority would be transferred to independent military prosecutors in what would be the biggest revision of the Uniform Code of Military Justice in three decades.
Military leaders have long opposed the shift, and until recently there appeared to be little appetite on Capitol Hill to force such a change on the Pentagon. But the mood has changed after disclosures of a sharp rise in sexual assaults and individual scandals. Many lawmakers said they have lost faith in the military’s ability to tackle the problem of sexual assault.
“The harsh reality is our military is failing,” said Rep. Susan A. Davis (D-Calif.), a member of the House Armed Services Committee. “Americans don’t accept failure, and I worry that we are approaching a crisis point.”
Army officials acknowledged that they had opened a criminal investigation into allegations that an unidentified sexual-
assault prevention officer at Fort Hood, Tex., had sexually abused women, including a subordinate whom he allegedly forced into prostitution.
That disclosure follows the arrest last week of an Air Force sexual-assault prevention officer on charges of sexual battery. Police said the officer drunkenly groped a stranger in a Northern Virginia parking lot.
The incidents prompted several lawmakers on Wednesday to introduce bills that would establish stricter criteria for sexual-
assault prevention programs in the military. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has ordered the retraining and rescreening of 9,000 personnel who serve as sexual-
assault prevention officers.
The Defense Department is struggling to cope with what its leaders describe as an epidemic of sex crimes, most of which go unreported and unprosecuted. Last week, defense officials released a report estimating that the number of military personnel victimized by “unwanted sexual contact” had surged by about 35 percent in the past two years, despite intensive efforts to confront the problem.
As a result, the Pentagon’s resistance to legislative interventions has faded.
On May 7, Hagel indicated to reporters that he would oppose a bill like Gillibrand’s that would remove commanders’ authority to oversee sexual-assault investigations and prosecutions. “It is my strong belief,” he said, “the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure.”