The top U.S. military officers were on the defensive at a confrontational Senate hearing Tuesday as they argued to keep the court martial authority to combat sex assaults within the chain of command.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., challenged the commitment of Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, as well as the rest of the service chiefs in attendance to deal with the growing problem of sexual assault in the ranks. She said the problem has caused the force to lose trust in their leadership.
"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually seek justice in these cases," Gillibrand said.
The latest annual Defense Department reports on sexual assault and harassment in the military showed that about 26,000 servicemembers have been the victims of "unwanted sexual contact" in 2011-2012, up from an estimated 19,000 incidents in 2009-2010.
The Defense Department also said that the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose six percent to 3,374 in 2012, and added that thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new assistance programs for fear of retaliation and the stigma that attaches to sex abuse cases.
The growing problem, described by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel as a "crisis," prompted senators from both sides of the aisle to drop their usual deference to four-star generals and admirals and question their determination to curb assaults in the ranks.
Gillibrand has proposed and received bipartisan support in the Senate to remove the convening authority from commanders and assign independent military lawyers to decide whether the military should prosecute a reported sexual assault, not the commander.
"Not all commanders are objective, not every single commander necessarily wants women on the force," Gillibrand said.
Six other legislative proposals to overhaul the way the military deals with sex abuse cases were also under consideration, said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. Senators at the hearing faulted military leadership for the way the Pentagon tallies sexual assault. Too often the Pentagon lumps sexual assault into one category leaving too many commanders who can't "distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all these crimes together," Gillibrand said.
Levin requested that Dempsey lead the Pentagon in an effort to more appropriately label sexual assaults in the surveys and reports issued to Congress.
"We are acting swiftly to change a climate that has become complacent," said Dempsey, who acknowledged his own past shortcomings in confronting the sexual assault issue. "I took my eye off the ball in the commands I had."
However, Dempsey and the service chiefs of the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marine Corps and the Coast Guard all said they were opposed to taking commanders out of the decision-making process on whether to prosecute allegations of sexual assault.
"Our force has within it the moral courage to change course," Dempsey said. The military was ready to consider "checks and balances" on a commander's authority, but Dempsey warned against legislation that would "render them less able to confront the crisis" on their own.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said "the Army has a serious problem." If Odierno believed that taking sex cases out of the chain of command would help, "I would be your strongest proponent," he said. Stripping away a commander's authority "will not work," Odierno said. "It will hamper the timely delivery of justice to the very people we desire to help."
Commanders "must be part of the solution or there will be no solution," said Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff.
Combating sexual assault in the military "is not just a legal issue. It is a leadership issue.The chain of command should be involved," said Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the Chief of Naval Operations.
"Commanding officers never delegate" responsibility, and that includes authority to deal with sexual assaults, said Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps. If the senators make changes in the Uniform Code of Military Justice on sexual assaults, "I plead with you to do it sensibly and responsibly," Amos said.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he was recently asked by a constituent to give his assurances that her daughter would be safe from sexual assault in the military.
"I could not," McCain said.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told the witnesses they were failing to weed out "the predators in your ranks." She said military leaders must create "a culture where victims are comfortable coming forward." "Guys, we're not doing our jobs," Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., said to the generals and admirals.
With the exception of Coast Guard Adm. Robert J. Papp, the service chiefs initially drew a blank when asked by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., whether any commanders had been relieved for failing to pursue allegations of sexual assault.
"I don't know of any," Odierno said.
Several rounds of questioning later, Welsh interjected to state that aides had just told him that two Air Force commanders had been relieved in the scandal at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas, where trainers were preying upon female recruits. Amos also later said he had been told that two colonels were relieved for not dealing appropriately with sex assault cases.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., confronted Greenert for being unaware that the militaries of Israel, Britain, Australia and Germany had taken sexual assault cases out of the chair of command. Greenert initially said that he appreciated the "tip" on what other militaries were doing, and would look into it.
Blunt told Greenert that his initial response was "stunningly bad."
"It's a tip?" Blunt asked Greenert.
Greenert later apologized.
"I take that aboard as something I should have done. A guy at the top should know that," he said.