WASHINGTON - The head of the Army said Wednesday that taking decisions on prosecuting serious crimes away from commanders would be costly and harmful to the military as the Senate's chief sponsor of changing the justice system signaled that she may scale back her effort.
Gen. Ray Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, criticized the proposal from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., ahead of an expected Senate vote on the measure that would alter decades-old laws on how the military deals with crimes within its ranks.
"I'm against taking commanders out of the process," Odierno told reporters at the Pentagon. "It's a big mistake."
Responding to an epidemic of sexual assaults, Gillibrand's legislation would remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial. Her proposal would give that authority to seasoned trial lawyers who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or higher.
Gillibrand has built support for her plan within Senate ranks, securing the backing of conservative Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., as well as 16 of the chamber's 20 females. However, she has faced stiff resistance from the stalwarts of the Senate Armed Services Committee, including Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and lawmakers with military backgrounds.
Forty-seven senators have announced their support, and Gillibrand said several more privately have backed the measure that she planned to offer as an amendment to the annual defense authorization bill. The Senate was expected to vote on amendments to the bill next week.
But in a surprise move Wednesday, Gillibrand said she was weighing revisions to her proposal to secure additional support.
"We're considering focusing the amendment on sexual assault and rape in response to some suggestions by undecided senators," Gillibrand, who chairs the Senate Armed Services personnel subcommittee, told reporters. "We already have a majority on our current bill. ... We may need 60 (votes) and we're looking intently to undecided colleagues about what makes the bill stronger."
Military officials said setting up the new independent office would cost about $113 million a year, including salaries for about 600 attorneys and support staff.
Odierno cited the cost of the plan, and also said he was opposed to any legislation that would remove commanders from the process. He said it was critical to keep commanders involved in the judicial process and that for the most part they do their jobs well.
He said that to approve that change now would "have a detrimental effect" on the military.
But he also said lawmakers "have given us a wake-up call," forcing the military to put needed focus on the problems of sexual assault and how it's prosecuted. He said the military welcomes the ongoing scrutiny.
Military leaders, including legal counsel, have been meeting regularly with lawmakers to try and find a compromise solution that would not strip commanders of their role in determining whether cases should go to trial.
Odierno, speaking to a small group of reporters at the Pentagon, said there was room for adjustments to the justice system.
The Pentagon estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2011, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
Earlier this year, the Armed Services Committee backed a Levin bill designed to increase pressure on senior commanders to prosecute sexual assault cases by requiring a top-level review if they fail to do so. Levin's proposal also would make it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault and also calls on the Pentagon to relieve commanders who fail to create a climate receptive for victims.
Last week, the Pentagon said reports of sexual assaults in the military increased by an unprecedented 46 percent during the 2013 fiscal year. There were 3,553 sexual assault complaints from October 2012 through June, compared with 2,434 reports during the same period the previous year.
Military leaders have argued that removing the decision from their purview would undercut the ability of officers to maintain good order and discipline in their units, a point echoed by several lawmakers.
"I'm the only member of the United States Senate who was actually in command, OK?," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War. "And I know what command authority is all about. So if you take it away from those commanders, you will impair battle efficiency. And I respect Sen. Gillibrand's views and her advocacy, but I do not believe that she has the background or experience on this issue. I do."
Asked about a more narrowly focused proposal, McCain said, "So we're going to have one lawyer for sexual assault - suppose someone is charged with two different crimes. One of them sexual assault, one of them robbery. So what do you do? Have one trial for this and another trial for that? It doesn't work."
Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate who served 12 years in the Army, said that based on his experience "leadership is key" and must rest with the commanders.
Associated Press writer Nedra Pickler contributed to this report.