The U.S. Senate blocked a measure sought by victims of sexual assaults in the military to take away the ability of commanders to prosecute those cases.
By a vote of 55-45, the Senate today fell short of the 60 votes required to act on the measure by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, that would turn over such cases to independent military prosecutors outside the alleged victim’s chain of command.
“The evidence shows removing this authority from our commanders would weaken, not strengthen, our response to this urgent problem,” said Senator Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, which rejected Gillibrand’s proposal last year at the urging of military commanders.
Supporters of the measure said most victims are afraid to report the crimes committed against them because of fear of intimidation within their chain of command.
“We need to encourage more reporting and that is what Senator Gillibrand’s bill will accomplish,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican. “How many more victims are required to suffer before we act further?”
A reported surge in sexual assaults that President Barack Obama has called “shameful and disgraceful” spurred calls for legislation, with women in Congress such as Gillibrand and Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat, at the forefront. The two lawmakers later split, with McCaskill leading opposition to Gillibrand’s approach while supporting provisions that were enacted last year in the annual defense authorization measure.
A Pentagon survey of active-duty troops last year estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year, compared with 2,949 victims identified in criminal reports. The findings were issued amid an uproar over alleged assaults that included cases involving officers working in sex-assault prevention programs.
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