Senate Democrats are divided on a key amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act that would take military sexual assault cases outside of the chain of command and have specially trained military prosecutors handle them instead.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) introduced the amendment in the hopes that it would encourage victims of rape in the military to come forward and report the crimes without fear of retaliation. Reports have found that commanders in charge of sexual assault cases in the military often know the perpetrator of the crime. In some cases, they are the perpetrator's friend, or are the perpetrator themselves. Gillibrand's measure has 27 cosponsors, including four Republicans.
"You don't have to take it from me and my colleagues," Gillibrand told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday. "Take it from the victims who have said it to us over and over again: They do not report because they do not trust the chain of command."
But Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) announced on Tuesday that he was going to replace Gillibrand's amendment with a proposal to keep sexual assault cases inside the chain of command and require a senior military officer to review decisions by commanders who refuse to prosecute rape cases.
The committee passed the substitute amendment on Wednesday by a vote of 17 to 9.
Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has proposed a reform similar to the one that passed Wednesday, said she and Gillibrand had differences of opinion in how to address the issue of military sexual assault.
"[Gillibrand and I] have have an honest disagreement on how best to accomplish our shared goal of putting predators in prison and supporting victims during the most difficult times of their lives," McCaskill said.
McCaskill echoed some Republicans' concerns that taking the cases outside of the chain of command would "dismantle" the military justice system that "has long been a centerpiece of discipline in our military."
Sens. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) said they support the substitute amendment's language. "I trust that our commanders are going to do better, because we're going to hold them more accountable," Graham said. "The worst we could do is deal them out of the game, because we're never going to get the results that we want."
Gillibrand said she has heard that argument before. "The chain of command has told us for decades that they will solve this prolem, and they have failed," she said. "We have heard the words 'zero tolerance' for over two decades, starting with Secretary Dick Cheney in 1992."
Sexual assault victims and victim advocacy groups slammed Levin's decision on Wednesday and said it would do nothing to reform the way the military handles sexual assault cases.
"As a survivor of military sexual assault, I am very disappointed in Chairman Levin and the Senate Armed Services Committee," said Trina McDonald, one of the military rape survivors that appeared in the documentary film "The Invisible War." "I know first hand that this is a problem that the military has tried to sweep under the rug for too many years. The actions taken by Chairman Levin today will only make it easier for the military to continue to look the other way and fail to address the epidemic of rape in the military in any meaningful way. For those of us who have fought for years for justice this is a very disappointing day."
UPDATE: Gillibrand responded to the passage of the substitute amendment shortly after the vote Wednesday.
“I am deeply disappointed the voices of the victims of sexual assault have been drowned out by the military leaders who have failed to combat this crisis," she said. "While, in my view, we did not take all the steps required to solve the problem, there is no doubt we have taken several significant steps forward with the current version of the bill. I will continue to fight to strengthen this bill by offering the Military Justice Improvement Act as an amendment when the Defense bill is on the full Senate floor for a vote. Our advocacy on this issue to remove the sole decision making of the chain of command in serious crimes has only just begun.”
CORRECTION: The original article stated incorrectly that Levin withdrew Gillibrand's proposal and replaced it with McCaskill's. The amendment introduced by Levin was his own.