Top Military Officers Resist Proposal to Take Sexual Assault Cases Out of Chain of Command

PHOTO: Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey and other top military personnel testify on Capitol Hill in Washington, June 4, 2013, before the Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on pending legislation regarding sexual assaults in the military.
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The nation's top military leaders have told Congress they have reservations about legislation that would remove commanders from the process of prosecuting sexual assault cases because, they say, it could ruin order and discipline in the ranks.

It's a highly contentious issue: Recent high profile-incidents and new statistics indicating that sexual assault in the military is on the rise have increased support on Capitol Hill for legislation that would remove the chain of command from the prosecution of sexual assault cases.

The most controversial legislation, proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has garnered bipartisan support. Deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, should go to trial would be made by seasoned legal officers.

At Tuesday's hearing, Gillibrand noted the importance of commanders' setting the tone for a unit, but argued that not all commanders are qualified to deal with serious sexual assault cases. "Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force, not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is, not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape," said Gillibrand.

Appearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee, the members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff acknowledged that efforts to curb sexual assault in the military have not been successful. They welcomed discussion of legislative efforts but, said chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey, "Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately, to accomplish the mission."

Read more: Hagel: Sexual Assault Report Shows Armed Forces 'Need Cultural Change'

Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, said, "Legal reform can and should continue to be part of our campaign to end sexual assault" and called some of the current legislation "reasonable."

But Odierno said removing the authority of commanders to handle assault cases could affect unit discipline and lead to other effects. "We cannot legislate our way out of this problem," said Odierno.

Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of Naval operations, explained that Naval commanders often have to make difficult decision when they are at sea, adding, "I believe it is essential that our commanders be involved in each phase of the military justice process."

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