WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama is being urged by two U.S. senators to investigate whether the Pentagon misled Congress with information about sexual assault cases in an effort to undercut support for a Senate bill that senior military officials steadfastly oppose.
In a letter sent to Obama on Tuesday, Sens. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., cited an Associated Press investigation published Monday and a report by the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders that found inaccuracies and omissions in military records that summarized the outcomes of cases prosecuted in military courts.
Grassley is the chairman of the Judiciary Committee. Gillibrand is a member of the Armed Services Committee.
The military records buttressed the Pentagon's position against the bill — which is sponsored by Gillibrand and backed by Grassley — that would strip senior officers of their responsibilities to decide whether to prosecute sexual assault crimes. That authority would be given instead to seasoned military trial lawyers outside the chain of command.
Underscoring the essential role commanders play, Pentagon officials have said such a shift will mean fewer victims will get justice because there will be fewer prosecutions. They've also said major strides have been made in curbing sexual assaults in the ranks.
Military representatives defended the accuracy of the information sent to Congress.
The records portrayed civilian district attorneys and local police forces as less willing than senior military officers to punish sex offenders. But in a number of the cases, the steps taken by civilian authorities were described incorrectly or omitted, AP's investigation found. Other case descriptions were too imprecise to be verified.
There also is nothing in the records that supports the primary reason the Pentagon told Congress about the cases in the first place: To show that top military leaders insisted on taking the cases to trial after civilian law enforcement said no.
"In case after case, the AP revealed facts that challenge the Pentagon's assertion that civilian prosecuting attorneys are either electing not to pursue justice, or are incompetently pursuing justice, in cases of military sexual assault," Grassley and Gillibrand wrote.
Grassley and Gillibrand also said AP's investigation and the report by Protect Our Defenders raise questions about the Pentagon's commitment to ending sexual violence in the armed forces. Protect Our Defenders, a nonpartisan organization, supports the bill.
"The allegations in the Protect Our Defenders report and the AP article include providing inaccurate information to a congressional committee, misleading the Congress, and undermining efforts to make critical reforms to a broken system," the senators wrote. "Due to the very serious nature of these allegations, we request that you direct an independent investigation into this matter."
The military records were obtained through the Freedom of Information Act by the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders, which provided the documents exclusively to AP. The nonprofit group on Monday said it found no evidence that any case was prosecuted at a commander's insistence.
Previously, the more than 90 cases had been discussed publicly only as statistics that underpinned the Pentagon's objections to Gillibrand's bill, the Military Justice Improvement Act.