Since 2013, lawmakers have tried to pass a bill that would reform key parts of how the military justice system deals with sexual assault, but during key stages of the legislative debate, the Pentagon misled Congress by “cherry picking” information, later disproved, about a hundred cases, according to a report released by a watchdog group Monday and provided to the Associated Press.
At issue is the Military Justice Improvement Act, or MIJA. The bill, championed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), aimed to change how the military treated sexual-assault cases by basically removing unit commands from the judicial process that decided whether cases should move forward. Under the bill, independent prosecutors would make that call. Proponents of the bill said the change would prevent military commanders from dismissing or slow-rolling cases, while critics of the bill said it would undermine the military’s hierarchy.
During testimony to Congress, Navy Adm. James Winnefeld, then the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that if the bill passed, fewer sexual-assault cases in the military would go to trial. Winnefeld reiterated his point in a follow-up letter to lawmakers. He claimed that between 2010 and 2013 there were 93 instances of civilian prosecutors refusing to take certain sexual-assault cases, prompting military commanders to insist on taking them to court-martial.
According to Army and Marine Corps documents obtained by the group Protect Our Defenders through Freedom of Information Act requests, it turns out that Winnefeld’s claims, echoed by at least four senators, were largely untrue. Protect Our Defenders is a nonpartisan group that supports the MIJA bill.
Out of 81 of the 93 cases, “there was not one example of a commander ‘insisting’ a case be prosecuted,” the report says. “In each case, military investigators or military attorneys requested the case from civilian authorities.”
The report goes on to say that in two-thirds of the 93 cases, “there was no sexual-assault allegation, civilian prosecutors never declined the case, or the military failed to prosecute for sexual assault.”
It is unclear whether Winnefeld knew he was propagating unsubstantiated claims. In a response to the AP, Joint Chiefs of Staff spokesman Richard Osial said that the admiral provided Congress with a “snapshot” of the information that the military provided him. “He had confidence to go with it,” Osial told the AP.
The 93 cases Winnefeld spoke about accounted for less than 1 percent of the more than 12,000 sexual-assault reports in the military between 2010 and 2013, according to the report.
Read the full report here.