In a rare joint appearance, the uniformed leaders of the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, as well as all six members of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, are scheduled to testify Tuesday before the Senate Armed Services Committee about what the Pentagon has described as an epidemic in sex crimes in the ranks. Lawmakers are floating a variety of bills to attack the problem but have not settled on a single approach.

Check here for the latest updates.


That’s a wrap

The hearing is over, and we're shutting down this liveblog. Anything not covered here will be wrapped into our analysis tomorrow. Thanks for reading!

Putting more women at the top

"I don't think the military creates rapists," said Service Women's Action Network co-founder Anu Bhagwati. "I think, however, we still condone sexual violence in the day to day."

That won't change, she said, until more women are high up in the military's chain of command.

Another voice for chain of command

Retired Maj. Gen. John Altenburg Jr., chairman of the American Bar Association Standing Committee on Armed Forces Law, said in his opening statement that the military prosecutes sexual assault more aggressively than civilian courts do. Those that say otherwise, he claimed, simply do not know the facts.

Before making major changes to the system, Altenburg argued, we should wait for recent reforms made by the armed forces to take hold.

"It doesn't mean that all the leaders are going to be the good people and the ones that get it," he said, but it has to be a change in culture that comes from leadership.

Activists testify from victims’ side

After hours of hearing from military commanders that the problem of sexual assault is being addressed, senators turned to activists who argued that much more needs to be done.

Nancy Parrish, president of Protect Our Defenders, and Anu Bhagwati, executive director and co-founder of the Service Women's Action Network, testified that many victims of sexual assault do not report attacks because they fear retaliation and because they do not believe their attackers will be prosecuted.

"To wait any longer is to welcome the next generation of American victims." Bhagwati said.

Sessions: ‘Culture … awash in sexual activity’

A culture "awash in sexual activity" contributes to the challenge of combating sexual assault in the military, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Tuesday.

In the midst of questioning commanders on their ability to and the protocol for dealing with reports of assault in their ranks, Sessions lamented what he saw as a broader societal problem.

"We live in a culture that's awash in sexual activity," he said. Sexual images, he said, are sold on bases or off base but nearby. "It creates some problems, I think."

Earlier in the day, Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said that the military being made up of so many young people is also a factor: “The hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur.”

By contrast, two female senators pushed back on the idea that sexual assault is a sexual problem.

“My years of experience in this tells me they are committing crimes of domination and violence. This isn’t about sex. This is about assaultive domination and violence,"  said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former sex crimes prosecutor, Tuesday morning.

Speaking shortly after her, Sen. Deb Fischer concurred.

"I think all of us need to acknowledge that this isn't a gender issue," she said. "This is a violence issue, as my colleague Senator McCaskill so — eloquently reminded all of us."

Harry Reid: ‘We’re going to have to do something’

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) told reporters Tuesday that he hopes that the Senate Armed Services Committee will move quickly to decide how to reshape how the military handles sexual assault cases.

"The situation of sexual exploitation in the armed services is beyond the pale," Reid said after his weekly luncheon with Senate Democrats. "Something has to be done about it, it cannot continue. And I’m looking at every one of these bills that has been suggested and we’re going to have to do something. I’m not picking and choosing which bill, but I hope that the Armed Services Committee will report quickly to the floor with the direction they think we should take. The present program within the military is not working. Women are being exploited and I’m sorry to report that even men are being exploited sexually and that’s wrong."

McCaskill: ‘Are you fricking kidding me?’

Following up on her stinging rebuke of the top military brass this morning, Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) pursued a tough line of questioning with line commanders in the afternoon.

Questioning whether commanders have the legal judgement necessary to handle sexual assault cases, McCaskill cited a letter from Lt. Gen. Craig A. Franklin explaining why he overturned a sexual-assault conviction for a star fighter pilot.

The letter, she said, was "astoundingly ignorant" and a "poster case of the lack of training in understanding sexual assault." (You can read that memo here.)

"Are you fricking kidding me?" asked McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor.

Noting that one in ten reported sexual assault cases in the military go to trial, she questioned whether non-judicial punishments — which commanders cited as a way to deal with a situation quickly and easily — were being used when criminal prosecution should have been pursued. "Don't you think you should" talk to victim before making that decision, she asked.

‘I don’t see it where I work’

One of the four commanders who appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday said that while he knew of the sexual assault problem in the military, he had no experience with it.

"I've never met a commander that wouldn't stop time when they've heard that this is happening," said Col. Tracy King, who leads a logistics regiment in the Marine Corps. As for a culture of tolerating sexual harassment and assault, he said, ""I can only speak to my personal experience. ... I don't see it where I work."

King later elaborated on why his unit was unusual. It is 16 percent female, which is high for  the Marines (overall, seven percent of Marines are female). "We do have a positive command climate." He has two issues of sexual assault to deal with he said, although he acknowledged that many are not reported. "I'm not saying I don't have a reporting issue, I'm going after that," he said.

Colonel Jeannie Leavitt, a commander in the Air Force, said she had convened everyone who works under her to watch "The Invisible War," a documentary that explores the issue of rape in the military. After the movie, she said, they discussed it, and she made clear that  she is judging leaders on their response to sexual assaults.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), had asked what could be done about leaders whose records on sexual assault are not as strong as those of the commanders testifying today.

All four agreed that if they ignored what later came out as a sexual assault case they would be removed from command.

More diverse group faces senators

The second panel convened for Tuesday's hearing is more diverse than the first. The military chiefs and judge advocate generals who faced senators this morning were 10 white men and one woman. There are four commanders facing lawmakers this afternoon; two are women, one a woman of color.

Their message is the same as the chiefs -- that sexual assault cases should stay within the chain of command. They argued that commanders can mete out non-judicial punishments (Article 15) even if a case does not meet the burden of proof for prosecution.

Hagan: Commanders might be afraid to report, too

Some commanders might not move sexual assault cases up the chain, Sen. Kay Hagan (D-N.C.) said, because they are worried it will reflect badly on them.

That might have been a problem in the past, Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps  commandant, said, but it is not anymore. And he said he would never punish a commander for dealing with sexual assault in his unit. "We're all in this together," he said.

"It's every commander's problem, it's every soldier's problem," agreed Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the Army chief of staff. The message he is sending, he said, is that "the worst thing we can do is not report this and not deal with it."

And that's it for the hearing's first panel.

Kaine: We ‘need heroes’

Sexual assault in the military doesn't just weaken confidence in the armed forces, it weakens confidence in the entire country, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) argued.

"Every society needs heroes, and ya'll are as good as we have right now," he said.

He said he's spoken with college students who are wary of joining the military because of the problem.

"When somebody says, 'I'll put my life on the line and I'll risk death ... but I'm not sure I'll risk this culture of sexual assault ... that is a very serious concern," he said.

Kaine also touched on the potential cost of improving the military justice system, asking whether more resources would be needed to broadly implement a special counsel program that is currently a pilot program in the Air Force. Gen. Mark Welsh said cost could be an issue.

Blunt: ‘Stunningly bad’ response

There is a rare bipartisan consensus on dealing with sexual assault in the military, as demonstrated by Sen. Roy Blunt's line of questioning. The Missouri Republican called the response from the brass to a question posed by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) "stunningly bad."

Shaheen's question was whether the chiefs had consulted with foreign military leaders on how to deal with sexual assault. Blunt said he was shocked that they hadn't discussed the issue with allies.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is pushing for sexual assault cases to be prosecuted outside the military, and has pointed to other countries as models.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Navy chief, said he should have taken that step but clarified that he has discussed sexual assault with foreign leaders — just not whether or not to litigate assault cases outside the chain of command. Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, the legal counsel to the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said he had discussed the issue with a British judge advocate.

Gillibrand: Some commanders can’t ‘distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape’

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), one of the most outspoken lawmakers seeking significant changes in how the military handles sexual assault cases, attempted to push the military service chiefs closer to her position on the matter.

Gillibrand is the lead sponsor on one of the most dramatic proposed changes in military policy regarding sex crimes that would remove more serious assault-related prosecutions from the military chain of command, unless the case is uniquely military in nature, such as disobeying orders or going Absent Without Leave.

But the service chiefs made clear in recent letters to the Armed Services Committee's leadership that they do not favor her proposal because such a change, they argued, would undermine the foundation of military culture by sending a message that commanders cannot be trusted to make good decisions.

Saying that she has spent several months reviewing the issue and speaking with victims of sexual violence serving in the military, Gillibrand told the witnesses that significant changes are needed.

"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases," Gillibrand said. "They’re afraid to report. They think their careers will be over. They fear retaliation. They fear being blamed. That is our biggest challenge, right there."

Later, she suggested that part of the problem is that "not every commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape" — a blunt assessment of how well the military is tracking the issue.

But in their responses, the military leaders didn't budge in their opinions of Gillibrand's bill, saying they should be involved in making any decisions on cases.

Graham questions change to system

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) questioned why military leaders were open to a change in policy that would take away commanders' ability to overturn guilty verdicts, saying it was "internally inconsistent" with their contention that the chain of command should not be changed.

The senator, a former judge advocate general in the Air Force who still serves as a colonel in the Air Force Reserves, is the only lawmaker who has vocally opposed that judicial change.

Lt. Gen. Dana Chipman, the Army judge advocate general, said that the power to overturn guilty verdicts in the military justice system was a change made decades ago for reasons that are no longer relevant.

Graham also pushed for sexual harassment and sexual assault to be tracked and dealt with separately. "I don't want everybody in the country to think that every allegation is of rape," he said. "Now every allegation of 'I was inappropriately talked to' is important and needs to be dealt with, but I think there's a big difference between the two systems," he said.

Fischer: ‘This isn’t a gender issue’

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) asked whether a climate that tolerates sexual harassment has contributed to the problem of sexual assault, and asked how the military was dealing with that problem.

"You know, we're looking at a -- at a crisis here that is being viewed through the lens of gender. But I think all of us need to acknowledge that this isn't a gender issue," he said.  "This is a violence issue, as my colleague Senator McCaskill so -- eloquently reminded all of us."

Fischer is cosponsoring a bill with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) that would require the military’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response officers become “nominative” positions, which would require applicants to undergo a more thorough application, training and certification process.

All of the leaders who spoke agreed that culture was a problem.

"I believe that a command climate that tolerates innuendos, jokes, posters and allusions therein involving gender sets the stage for where a predator can, if not flourish, then exist," Adm. Jonathan Greenert of the Navy said. "We are focused to get to that."

Gen. James Amos, the Marine commandant, said (as he had earlier) that he has just instituted a policy mandating annual command climate surveys for every member of every unit.

The Coast Guard enforces a culture of respect verbally, Adm. Robert Papp said, but is currently doing surveys on the climate and may respond with a formal process. The Army is including questions on the command climate in a pilot program on sexual assault and will decide what to do when the results are out, Gen. Raymond Odierno said.

Sexual assault reports up in Marines, Navy

Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), a former judge advocate in the Air Force, asked whether efforts to combat sexual assault already underway have had an effect.

Gen. James Amos, the Marine Corps commandant, said the number of reported sexual assaults is up 31 percent in the Marines since aggressive steps have been taken. That was expected, he said, because the assumption was that many cases were going unreported. "I don't take comfort in it," he said, but it is "the reality of a successful campaign."

Overall in the Navy, reports are up 50 percent, Adm. Jonathan Greenert said, but in a training center where a pilot program on sexual assault has been implemented, incidents have gone down by two thirds.

Manchin: What’s different this time?

Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) began his questioning by noting the long history of sexual violence in the military.

"This is not a new problem," he said. "I look at the Navy Tailhook Scandal of 1991, the Army basic training scandals in the 1990s, the Coast Guard captain who was kicked out in 2010, you have the Air Force basic training scandal at Lackland."

"After each of these instances, Department of Defense leaders all said never again, or used phrases like zero tolerance," Manchin added. "So I guess I would ask, what’s different this time?

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, put it this way:

"I think what happened in the 1990s is that we focused on victim protection. We immediately focused our attention on victim protection. Versus prevention. And then, as we reflected on it, we entered this period of 12 years of conflict. And frankly — I’ll speak for myself — I took my eye off the ball in the command that I have."

With the military facing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Dempsey said that the services didn't do enough to survey the ranks about issues such as sexual assault.

"What you're hearing today is that we’ve got to go back and take some of these tools and make better use of them," Dempsey said. "We’re also spending a lot more time working on the prevention side."

Dempsey also suggested that troops returning from Iraq and Afghanistan "engage in some high-risk behavior as they come out of the conflict. When you tie it all together, I wouldn’t say that we’ve been inactive, but we’ve been less active than we probably need to be."

McCaskill slams how Pentagon tracks sexual violence

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was the first of the seven women on the Armed Services Committee to get an opportunity to question the top brass, and she spent most of her time delivering a stinging rebuke of their opening statements.

"We can prosecute our way out of the problem of sexual predators who are not committing crimes of lust," she told the witnesses. "My years of experience in this tells me they are committing crimes of domination and violence. This isn’t about sex. This is about assaultive domination and violence. And as long as those two get mushed together, you all are not going to be as successful as you need to be at getting after the most insidious part of this, which is the predators in your ranks that are sullying the great name of our American military.

McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor, also took the military commanders to task over how they track the issue, reporting mostly on "incidents" and not actual cases of sexual violence and also failing to specify what types of incidents occur.

"You’re mushing this together in the reporting," she told the witnesses. "Unwanted sexual contact is everything from somebody looking at you sideways when they shouldn't, to someone pushing you up against the wall and brutally raping you. You've got to, in your surveys, delineate the two problems, because until you do, we'll have no idea whether or not you're getting your hands around this. We need to know how many women and men are being raped and sexually assaulted on an annual basis — and we have no idea right now, because all we know is that we've had unwanted sexual contact — 36,000. Well that doesn't tell us whether it's an unhealthy work environment or whether or not you've got criminals."

McCaskill then starkly laid out what "success" might look like in the coming years if the services reform how they track the issue.

"Success is going to look like this: more reports of rape, sodomy and assault and less 'incidents' of rape, sodomy and assault," she said. "Everyone needs to be prepared here, that if we do a good job, that that number ... that's going to go up, if we're doing well. Overall the incidents are going to go up."

Finally, McCaskill criticized current policy that permits commanders to take into account a person's military experience when determining how to handle an assault case.

"The facts of a felony are the facts of a felony, I don't care how good a pilot it is, I don't care how good a Special Ops person it is. Their ability to perform as a soldier or an airman or a member of the Coast Guard is irrelevant to whether or not they committed a crime," she said.

McCaskill then asked whether any of the witnesses disagreed with proposed legislation that would bar commanders from considering a person's military experience in making decisions on whether to pursue a case.

Lt. Gen. Richard C. Harding, the judge advocate general for the Air Force, was the only official to speak up, saying that a person's character "is appropriate to enter into the equation. It doesn't enjoy overriding weight" but should be considered.

"It is not by any stretch of the imagination an overriding factor or one that would result in a decision solely not to prosecute," Harding said.

Chambliss: Hormone levels create issue

Sen. Saxby Chambliss (R-Ga.) said.used his questions to press leaders on how recruits are screened, saying that checking for sexual assault convictions is not enough. At the same time, he said, "the hormone level created by nature sets in place the possibility for these types of things to occur."

When recruiting soldiers, "you're going to have to go further than looking at convictions of individuals," he said. "I don't know how you're going do that," he acknowledged, suggesting that "there may be things known within the community about individuals" that the military needs to know.

Chambliss also argued that there should have been an investigation after several of the first female members of an aircraft carrier crew came back from a six-month deployment pregnant.

That happened in 1995, but Chambliss argued that the lack of attention to the case was a sign of the sexual assault problem that faces the military today. If that happened in the private sector, he said, there would have been an extensive investigation into whether all of those pregnancies were consensual.

Later in the hearing, Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) also alluded to a sexual atmosphere playing a role in sexual assault.

“We live in a culture that’s awash in sexual activity,” he said. Sexual images, he said, are sold on bases or off base but nearby. “It creates some problems, I think.”

By contrast, two female senators pushed back on the idea that sexual assault is a sexual problem.

“My years of experience in this tells me they are committing crimes of domination and violence. This isn’t about sex. This is about assaultive domination and violence,”  said Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), a former sex crimes prosecutor, Tuesday morning.

Speaking shortly after her, Sen. Deb Fischer concurred.

“I think all of us need to acknowledge that this isn’t a gender issue,” she said. “This is a violence issue, as my colleague Senator McCaskill so — eloquently reminded all of us.”


The witnesses: 11 men, 1 woman

A picture of what we're seeing on CSPAN at the Armed Services Committee hearing:

McCain: Should a woman go into the military?

Before beginning his questioning, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) gave a powerful statement on how the problem of sexual assault in the military could impact the makeup of the armed forces.

A woman asked him, he said, if he would be able to give her "unqualified support" to send a daughter into the military.

"I could not," he said. "I cannot overstate my disgust and disappointment over continued reports of sexual misconduct in our military. We've been talking about the issue for years, and talk is insufficient."

"I believe the military is our most effective equal-opportunity employer," he said later adding that the military must move quickly to address concerns about sexual assault or jeopardize its reputation.


What the military is already doing

Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, focused on how the military chiefs are already addressing sexual assault.

Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, director of the Marines Corps' Judge Advocate Division, discussed establishing certified credentialed victims' advocates. Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, talked about a pilot program creating special victims' counsel. "Feedback from the victims has been very very positive," he said. "We're excited about where it's going."

How would changing the rules affect the chain of command?

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) began the questioning of top military commanders by asking for a general sense of how taking oversight of adjudicating sexual assault cases would affect the power of military commanders.

"We hold the commander responsible for everything the service does,"  Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told the panel, adding later that responsibility for dealing with sexual assault cases "is best served by the authority that aligns with it."

Then, as if to drive home the point made by every official who's testified, Dempsey said: "If you heard each of us suggest that the role of the commander is central to solving this problem, it’s because we believe that the role of the commander is essential to any change that we'll be able to make on this issue."

Later, Levin sought to clear up any misconceptions over how people can report allegations of sexual assault in the military, noting that every service permits people to report incidents to any number of officials, including military and civilian police, health-care professionals and their commander, if they so choose.

Proponents for changing current policy note that even if allegations are first reported to someone other than a commander, that commander will eventually learn about the allegations since they have final say on how such cases should be handled.

Papp: ‘Military justice system is not perfect’

"Every commander must create a culture that is intolerant of any sexual harassment," said Adm. Robert Papp, commandant of the Coast Guard.

While he acknowledged that "the military justice system is not perfect," he warned that there could be unintended consequences to taking sexual assault cases out of the chain of command.

I have "serious concern about legislation that would fundamentally alter the role of commanders without considering second- and third-order effects," he said.

Amos: 2 percent of Marines responsible

Gen. James Amos, the U.S. Marine Corps commandant, told lawmakers that the Marines are already making headway with the "shameful" and "repulsive" problem of sexual assault in the military.

"Roughly 2 percent of our Marine population" is responsible for sexual assault in the ranks, he said, meaning that most Marines are "keeping their honor clean." And changes to the system for preventing, reporting and holding perpetrators responsible for sexual assault are making a difference, he said.

As other commanders did, Amos argued against taking sexual assault cases out of the chain of command. "The unit will rise or fall as a direct result of the leadership of their commanding officers," he said.

Welsh: ‘I will not be tolerant of this crime’

Gen. Mark A. Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, reiterated what others have said — that top commanders must be involved in reforming how the military handles sexual assault cases and must oversee investigations and prosecutions.

"None of us will be standing still," he told the panel. "Commanders shouldn't just be part of the solution — they must be part of the solution or there will be no solution."

Welsh and the Air Force have come up for special scrutiny in recent weeks amid reports of a sex scandal at the Air Force’s basic-training school at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where more than 30 instructors have been investigated on suspicion of abusing or mistreating recruits.

Welsh made clear he has no tolerance for such behavior, and turned personal in his testimony: "I have five sisters, I have a mother, they set my moral compass on this issue. I have a daughter who is looking at coming into the United States Air Force. I will not be tolerant of this crime. None of us will."

Greenert highlights pilot program

Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, joined other members of the military brass in arguing that sexual assault cases should not be taken out of the chain of command.

"I believe it is essential that our commanders be involved in every step of the military justice process," he said.

Greenert called it "inconceivable" that one sailor would assault another. He highlighted a pilot program at the training command at Naval Station Great Lakes that has had success, he said, in dramatically reducing the number of reported sexual assaults.

So who are these guys?

The Joint Chiefs of Staff is comprised of senior military officials who advise the defense secretary, and in turn the president, on military affairs.

So who are these guys? Here are links to their official bios:

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Adm. James A. Winnefeld Jr., vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Gen. Mark A. Welsh IIIAir Force chief of staff

Gen. Ray OdiernoArmy chief of staff

Adm. Jonathan W. Greenertchief of naval operations

Gen. James AmosMarine Corps commandant

Gen. Frank J. Grass is chief of the National Guard Bureau and a member of the JCS, but is not testifying Tuesday. Adm. Robert J. Papp Jr., the Coast Guard commandant, is testifying Tuesday, but is not part of the JCS because the Coast Guard is part of the Department of Homeland Security.

Joint testimony of Joint Chiefs unprecedented

Never before in modern times have all of the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff — and the commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, which is not part of the JCS — testified at the same table at the same time, according to staffers on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

They checked and can't find evidence of all of them being before a congressional committee before, at least not in the past few decades. The Senate Historian's Office, which doesn't track such information, deferred to the committee.

A reminder: The Joint Chiefs of Staff is comprised of senior uniformed leaders in the military who advise the defense secretary and require Senate confirmation. But they do not have direct command of U.S. military troops.

Odierno: ‘Making commanders less responsible will not work’

Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, is the first of the top service chiefs to address lawmakers at the hearing and he reiterates that the top brass doesn't want to cede control of handling sexual assault cases.

"It is imperative that we keep the chain of command fully engaged and at the center of any solution to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment. Command authority is the most critical mechanism for ensuring discipline and accountability," Odierno told the committee.

He said later that the military justice system was "deliberately designed" to have commanders oversee the process.

"Removing commanders, making commanders less responsible, will not work," he added. "It will undermine the readiness of the force, it will inhibit our commanders' ability to shape the climate" and "will hamper the timely delivery of justice."

Based on letters that top commanders sent recently to members of the committee, we should expect to hear similar statements from the others.

Dempsey: ‘We can and must do more’

Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, urged lawmakers to keep top military commanders involved in any move to reform how the military handles sexual assault cases.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara, File)
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff  (Koji Sasahara/AP)

"The risks inherent to military service should never include the risk of sexual assault," Dempsey told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee, adding that the top brass is "acting swiftly and deliberately to change a culture that has become a bit too complacent."

Military legal reform "has been and should continue to be part of this campaign," Dempsey said, but if further reforms are needed, "I urge that military commanders remain central to the legal process."

"The commander's ability to preserve good order and discipline remains essential to accomplishing any change with our profession. Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately, to accomplish the mission," Dempsey added.

Dempsey and some of his colleagues on the Joint Chiefs wrote letters last month expressing concerns about removing sexual-assault cases from the traditional chain of command.

“Removing commanders from the military justice process sends the message to everyone in the military that there is a lack of faith in the officer corps,” Dempsey wrote May 20 to members of the Armed Services Committee. “Conveyance of a message that commanders cannot be trusted will only serve to undermine good order and discipline.”

Inhofe indicates rift on response

In his opening statement, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) spoke against a proposal from Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would remove more serious assault-related prosecutions from the military chain of command.

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) (Susan Walsh/AP)

"I strongly believe that we must be deliberate in making changes" to the military justice system, he argued, and said he "would oppose any change that would move commanders from their role."

Gillibrand's proposal, he said, was a reaction to a recent case in which an air force general overturned a fighter pilot's conviction on sexual assault charges. But such cases were "extraordinarily rare," Inhofe said.

Levin: Chain of command must act

Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) opened Tuesday's hearing by calling on military commanders to drive out sexual assault.

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

Levin laid out the scope of the problem, past attempts to deal with it and the proposals before lawmakers now.

"The problem of sexual assault is of such scope and magnitude that it has become a stain on our military," he said.

But, he said, "we cannot successfully addresses this problem without a culture change throughout the military."

Such cultural shifts have been accomplished before, he said, with racial integration and the recent end of the "Don't Ask Don't Tell" ban on gays serving openly in the military.