Levin Works to Keep Brass Oversight on Rape Cases

With backing from the Pentagon, Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, renewed his opposition to efforts by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to remove the chain of command from the prosecution of sexual assaults in the military.

Citing data provided by the Defense Department, Levin said that foreign militaries that took away a commander's influence on prosecutorial decisions were looking to protect the rights of defendants rather than victims.

Levin also noted that commanders used their authority to go forward with prosecutions in nearly 100 cases in which civilian prosecutors declined to go to trial.

Gillibrand has cited the experience of the militaries of Britain, Canada, Australia in removing commanders from prosecutorial as evidence that the U.S. armed forces could easily follow suit.

However, Levin said in a statement that "our goal should be to prevent sexual assaults and to bring perpetrators to justice."

"Following the lead of allies who removed prosecution decisions from the chain of command to provide greater protection for defendants will hurt our efforts rather than help," Levin said. "This is more evidence that removing commanders from our military justice system would weaken our efforts to combat sexual assault."

Gillibrand's push to strip commanders of their convening authority over verdicts and referrals in sexual assault courts martial was voted down in the Senate Armed Services Committee last month. However, she has been seeking to rally 50 senators behind her proposal to take it to the Senate floor.

Gillibrand now claims the backing of at least 43 senators, including Sens. Rand Pau, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Tex., and will press ahead for a vote in the full Senate despite the opposition of Levin, said Bethany Lesser, a Gillibrand spokeswoman.

Levin cited a letter from Army Brig. Gen. Richard Gross, the chief counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the experience of allies who took commanders out of the prosecutorial chain.

"There was no statistical or anecdotal evidence that removing commanders from the charging decision had any effect on victims' willingness to report crimes," Gross said.

Another letter to Levin from Adm. James Winnefeld, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, provided data on nearly 100 sexual assault cases over the past two years in which the military prosecuted when civilian authorities would not go to court.

"Advocates of legislative proposals to strip commanders' authority have suggested that doing so would improve efforts to end sexual assault," Levin said, "But the new information indicates that stripping that authority risks reducing the number of cases that are prosecuted."

In response, Glen Caplin, another Gillibrand spokesperson, said in a statement that "it is not surprising the military leadership is shifting the goal posts and fighting hard to maintain the status quo."

"They can slice the data any way they choose but the fact is this -- 50 percent of female victims have told the Defense Department that they did not report because they thought nothing would come of it," Caplin said. "And victim after victim has spoken out about the bias and conflicts of interest in the current broken chain of command system that has re-victimized them when they do come forward."

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