A controversial provision in a defense spending bill — giving military prosecutors, and not commanders, the power to decide what sexual-assault cases to try — has been removed from the legislation, The New York Times reported.
In making the change, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin sided with Pentagon brass.
The decision Tuesday by the Michigan Democrat is almost certain to create a confrontation with Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, who authored the measure that would take decisions on the handling of sexual-assault claims away the command structure and place it in the hands of independent prosecutors.
Gillibrand's measure, cosponsored by a bipartisan group of 27 senators, was aimed at putting a stop to what some see as a pattern of sexual-assault complaints being dismissed and convictions overturned by commanders. According to the Times, it also was aimed at encouraging more victims of sexual assault in the military to come forward with their complaints.
Levin, the Times reported, plans to replace the Gillibrand measure with his own, calling for a senior military official to review decisions by commanders who refuse to prosecute sexual-assault cases. Levin's plan still would change the current system for dealing with such cases, but it would — as the military wants — still leave decisions on prosecution under the command structure.
In going up against Gillibrand, Levin also is taking on six other women senators on his committee who just last week scorched a hearing room with blunt and angry criticism of the military's joint chiefs for failing to address long-time complaints about the rise of sexual assaults within the ranks.
Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, a co-sponsor of Gillibrand's bill, told the Times that Levin appeared to be defending the military command structure.
"They basically embrace the status quo here," she said. "It's outrageous."
Gillibrand still could have a chance to bring her measure up on the Senate floor later in the summer, and she may have at least one powerful chairman on her side if she decides to do so.
According to the Times, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy of Vermont signed his displeasure Tuesday with the current situation. He suggested to Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that Congress might consider replacing military commanders with state prosecutors to handle sexual-assault cases.
"To do things as they've always been done is not acceptable," Mr. Leahy said, the Times noted.
In an appearance Sunday on CBS' "Face the Nation," Gillibrand again called the rise in sexual assault in the military "a crisis."
"We have 26,000 unwanted sexual contacts a year," she said. "Seventy percent of them are sexual assaults and rape."
The joint chiefs made it clear at the hearing last week, though, that they still oppose removing investigations from the chain of command. Although they admitted the problem of sexual assaults is "like a cancer," they said turning the cases over to independent prosecutors outside the command structure could upset their ability to maintain discipline overall.
The House, meanwhile, is expected this week to pass its own defense-spending bill, including provisions for more harsh punishments for sex crimes within the military and ways to make it more difficult for commanders to throw out convictions.
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