A key Senate panel voted Wednesday to keep allowing commanders to oversee the prosecution of military sexual assaults, in a rare display of Democratic infighting over how to combat a rising problem in the ranks.
The Senate Armed Services Committee on June 12 voted 17-9 in favor of an amendment sponsored by its chairman, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., rather than a competing one offered by Kirsten Gillibrand D-N.Y.
Gillibrand argued passionately with fellow members of the panel to support her proposal, which she said would help to increase the reporting of sex crimes by removing the chain of command from their prosecution.
"The victim fears retaliation," she said. "It's the reporting we need to change."
The Pentagon's failure to control the dramatic increases in sexual assault throughout the U.S. Military has infuriated Congress in recent months.
An estimated 26,000 active-duty troops had unwanted sexual contact in fiscal 2012, up from about 19,300 in 2010, according to a report the Pentagon released May 7. By comparison, 3,374 troops reported sexual assaults last year, an increase of 5.7 percent from the previous year, according to the report.
Advocates say the discrepancy in the figures shows the degree to which victims are reluctant to come forward.
Levin defended what he said was a bipartisan plan to better combat military sexual assault in part by directing the defense secretary to prohibit retaliation against a victim for reporting a sexual assault, and make such retaliation a criminal offense.
The Senate Armed Services Committee's vote came as part of a debate to amend, or mark-up, its version of the 2014 defense authorization bill. The legislation sets policy goals and spending targets for the next fiscal year, which begins Oct. 1.
The festering problem also dominated discussion during 2014 budget hearings on June 11-12 before the Senate Appropriations and Budget committees.
"Commanding officers are responsible for establishing a command climate in which sexual assault allegations are properly managed and fairly evaluated and a victim can report criminal activity including sexual assault without fear of retaliation including ostracism and group pressure from other members of the command," Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey Wednesday morning at a hearing before the Senate Budget Committee.
"My question to you Mr. Secretary is do you think that by removing the chain of command in order to prosecute sexual assault in the military – will that give more incentive for the victims to come forward?" Nelson asked.
Hagel responded with a warning that Congress and the Pentagon will "have to be very careful when we talk about taking the command structure out of this process."
"Some things have got to change; we all accept that," Hagel said. "I have also said that anything we do -- anything that Congress does -- needs to be done very thoughtfully because there will be consequences to anything that comes out of this.
"I don't personally believe that you can eliminate the command structure in the military from this process because it is the culture. It is the institution; it's the people within the institution that have to fix the problem … so I don't know how you disconnect that from the accountability of the command."