Hagel: Remove Convening Authority From Commanders

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will propose Congress retract a commander's convening authority that gives commanders the power to reverse the findings of a court martial, the defense secretary announced Monday.

Hagel made the announcement after he completed a review of Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which provides commanders the convening authority. He started the review following the uproar after Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, the 3rd Air Force commander overturned the court martial conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson in a sexual assault case.

Wilkerson, who was serving at the Aviano Air Base in Italy at the time of the alleged acts, was convicted by a court martial jury of sexual assault and conduct unbecoming an officer. He was sentenced to serve a year in jail and be dishonorably discharged from the service.

Wilkerson will remain in the Air Force and serve as the 12th Air Force's chief of flight safety following the overturned conviction.

The defense secretary cannot make alterations to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Only Congress has that power. Hagel said he will direct the "Office of General Counsel to prepare legislation for Congress to amend Article 60 in two ways," he said in a statement.

First, Hagel will recommend eliminating a commander's convening authority to "change the findings of a court martial, except for certain minor offenses that would not ordinarily warrant trial by court martial," the defense secretary said in a statement.

Hagel will also recommend that a commander must "explain in writing any changes made to court martial sentences, as well as any changes to findings involving minor offenses," according to a Pentagon statement.

"These changes, if enacted by Congress, would help ensure that our military justice system works fairly, ensures due process, and is accountable," Hagel said. "These changes would increase the confidence of service members and the public that the military justice system will do justice in every case."

Hagel said the Joint Chiefs of Staff as well as the service secretaries supports these recommendations.

Hagel's proposal to change Article 60 will likely have numerous potential sponsors within the Senate. Multiple senators on both sides of the aisle have been outspoken in their concern over the 3rd Air Force commander's decision.

Franklin's decision was made at an especially sensitive time as records show the problem of sexual assault within military ranks continues to grow. A Pentagon study reported about 19,000 sexual assaults took place in the military in 2010.

The personnel panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee held a two-part hearing on sexual assault in March following a string of disturbing reports that highlighted the trend of sexual assault in the military ranks. 

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., the subcommittee chair, slammed Franklin's decision at the hearing saying "it is the exact opposite of discipline and order."

Robert S. Taylor, the acting general counsel of the Defense Department, said he worried that Franklin's decision to overturn the conviction sent the wrong message to airmen. He worried it would scare servicemembers who were sexually assaulted to report the crime.

"I'm concerned by the message that is received," he said. "We have to redouble our efforts to make sure that victims are willing to come forward and are willing to entrust the military justice system."

Hagel said Monday he is committed to continuing to attack sexual assault and better protect servicemembers from the crime.

"Despite the attention and efforts of senior leaders throughout the Department of Defense, it is clear the department still has much more work to do to fully address the problem of sexual assault in the ranks," the defense secretary said in a statement.

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