WASHINGTON — Sexual assault in the U.S. armed forces remains pervasive despite the military's attempts to eradicate sex crimes from the ranks, according to a new report by a Senate Democrat who has been critical of the Pentagon's efforts.
In the report to be released Thursday, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York said "despite years of congressional reforms, our men and women in uniform still do not have confidence in the military justice system." Fewer sexual assault cases are going to trial, she said, and those that do are generating fewer convictions.
Gillibrand, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, examined internal legal documents from 238 sexual assault cases that were adjudicated in 2015 at four of the largest military installations in the United States: the Army's Fort Hood in Texas, Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia, the Marine Corps' Camp Pendleton in California and Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.
In what she described as a shocking outcome, Gillibrand said there were no examples in the records from those bases of disciplinary action being taken against anyone who retaliated against a person who reported a sexual assault. She said that conflicted with Pentagon surveys that found more than half of all victims across the vast Defense Department enterprise experienced negative reactions or reprisal for their complaints.
Gillibrand is the top Democrat on the panel's personnel subcommittee.
Her report is being issued less than a week before the Senate is scheduled to take up the defense policy bill for the 2018 budget year. Gillibrand is seeking to force a vote on an amendment that would make a major change in how the military services deal with allegations of sexual misconduct.
Gillibrand's proposal would strip senior military officers of their authority to decide whether sex crimes and other serious offenses go to trial. That responsibility would be given instead to independent military trial counsels. Supporters of Gillibrand's measure, including Republican Sens. Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Rand Paul of Kentucky, say drastic change is needed to get a grip on a persistent problem.
Gillibrand said the data she's compiled "make a profound argument for the professionalization and modernization of the military justice system." For example, she said, her review of the 2015 cases found that higher-ranking service members accused of sexual misconduct are more likely to be believed than their victims and are therefore less likely to be convicted.
"There appears to be an inherent bias when commanders make military justice decisions in these cases, and because of this, the disposition authority must be taken out of the chain of command and placed in the hands of trained, unbiased military lawyers," her report stated.
But senior Pentagon officials have opposed her plan, as has Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee. They've argued that commanders are essential to maintaining good order and discipline in the ranks. Removing them would mean fewer sex offenders will be caught and convicted, they said.
Other lawmakers and senior U.S. military leaders say gains have been made toward curbing sex crimes and punishing offenders. The Pentagon's annual report on sexual assault and harassment in the military that was issued in May found that reports of sexual assaults in the military increased slightly last year — 6,172 reports were filed in 2016 compared to 6,083 the previous year.
But defense officials said an anonymous survey done as part of the report also showed progress in fighting sexual assault, as fewer than 15,000 service members described themselves as victims of unwanted sexual contact. That is 4,000 fewer than in a 2014 survey.
Gillibrand said the Pentagon's tallies fail to capture the breadth of the problem, which extends beyond military bases and into the civilian communities surrounding the installations.
Female civilians, nonmilitary spouses of service members, and minors accounted for more than a third of the 2015 cases of sexual assault and unwanted sexual contact, according to the senator's report. Yet these cases aren't counted in the Defense Department's surveys, an omission Gillibrand said "underrepresents the scope of sexual violence in military communities."
This is the third consecutive year Gillibrand has written a report based on an analysis of internal legal documents she's obtained from the military services. She requested the 2015 records in July 2016 and it took more than a year for the Defense Department to gather the cases files and for her office to analyze them.