As frustration builds over sexual assault in the U.S. military, lawmakers warned Pentagon leaders Tuesday they are considering legislation that would allow personnel accused of sexual offenses to be tried by state prosecutors.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Defense Subcommittee to testify on the fiscal 2014 National Defense Authorization Act.
Several lawmakers, however, wanted to discuss the increasingly incendiary issue of why the Pentagon can’t seem to control the “epidemic” of sexual assault in its ranks, as well as in the service academies.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., lectured Hagel and Dempsey over the U.S. Naval Academy’s mishandling of a string of sexual misconduct cases.
“In most of those cases where nothing was done -- if that was outside a military reservation with its special laws, local prosecutors would be prosecuting people; there would be people going to jail,” Leahy said.
“I mention that because I know there is some reluctance in making the chain of command more responsive, but … let me tell you there is some thought -- and this is a matter not before the appropriations committee but the judiciary committee -- to removing the [military personnel] exemption and allowing state prosecutors to move in on those cases.
“I throw that out as a warning to the military chain of command that to do things as they have always been done is not acceptable.”
Hagel responded by discussing the recent, congressionally mandated panel formed to find solutions to curb military sexual assault. The panel consists of four representatives from Congress and five military officials.
That panel will hold its first meeting in the next two weeks and dissect every aspect of the issue, from chain of command to use of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Hagel said.
The panel will “make recommendations to the Congress and the Department of Defense on what they think needs to be changed,” Hagel said. “These are very qualified, respected and experienced people -- men and women of all backgrounds.”
Several lawmakers said they were concerned specifically about how the leadership of service academies has handled past cases of sexual assault.
The Naval Criminal Investigative Service has reopened an investigation against three Naval Academy football players accused of raping a female midshipman last year at an off-campus house in Annapolis, Md.
NCIS had closed the investigation in November -- in the midst of the Navy football season -- and did not press charges even though investigators collected "substantial evidence, including an admission from one player and social media postings memorializing what had occurred,” according to the victim’s defense attorney.
Even as the investigation continues, the victim’s attorney has said she is concerned that Naval Academy Superintendent Vice Adm. Michael Miller holds the power to decide whether the military presses charges against the three Navy football players.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., said service academy superintendents should be evaluated based in part on their handling of sexual assault cases.
Mikulski also asked Hagel, “Would you support Senate confirmation of all service academy superintendents?”
Hagel responded, “I have no problem with that.”