Top uniformed officers admit they lost focus on the issue.
WASHINGTON -- The military's top uniformed officers acknowledged before a Senate panel Tuesday that they had lost focus on sexual assaults in their services while they also opposed proposals that would remove commanders' discretion to overturn decisions to prosecute troops and throw out their convictions.
"I took my eye off the ball in the commands I had," said Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in response to a statement by Sen. Joe Manchin, D-W.Va., that little had changed despite 20 years of negative publicity.
A decade of war, Dempsey said, had pushed aside the issue in favor of improving "command climate."
Some members of the Senate Armed Services Committee supported the service chiefs' opposition to legislation that would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury decisions in sexual assault and harassment cases. Others, however, hammered the military for its consistent failure to stem the growing number of such cases.
Calls for overhaul of the military justice system have grown louder since the Pentagon released a report last month showing a 35% jump in the estimated number of sexual abuse incidents in 2012 compared with 2010.
"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice," Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., told the leaders of the Army, Air Force, Marine Corps, Coast Guard and Navy. She has introduced one of seven bills the committee is considering to deal with sexual assault in the military.
The bill from Gillibrand, who chairs the subcommittee on personnel matters, would put decisions to handle sexual assault cases in the hands of military judges and juries. Currently, decisions on charges, the jury's makeup and whether a conviction or punishment can stand are handled by a defendant's superior. That commander receives advice from a military lawyer.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., vowed to make changes.
"The situation of sexual exploitation in the armed services is beyond the pale. Something has to be done about it. It cannot continue," Reid said Tuesday. "And I'm looking at every one of these bills that have been suggested, and we're going to have to do something. And I'm not picking and choosing which bill, but I hope that the Armed Services Committee will report quickly to the floor with the direction they think we should take."
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said the crisis had grown so dire that he could no longer recommend to a young woman to join the armed services.
Gillibrand told the chiefs that not all commanders are committed to dealing with sexual harassment and assault. Some, she said, do not welcome women in the military. Others don't "differentiate between a slap on the ass and rape because they merge all these crimes together."
She told them that they had lost the trust of the men and women that they will bring justice because, in part, they fear retaliation.
Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Mo., appeared exasperated that Adm. Jonathan Greenert, the chief of Naval Operations, wasn't aware of how U.S. allies had dealt with sexual assault. How could that be the case, Blunt asked, since the problem has been known for years?
Greenert acknowledged that was "something I should have done."
Sen. Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and the committee chairman, said it was up to commanders, not just laws, to ensure that sexual assault is not tolerated. "The problem of sexual assault is of such scope and magnitude that it has become a stain on our military," he said.
"As important as some of these additional protections and procedural changes may be, however, we cannot successfully address this problem without a culture change throughout the military," Levin said. "Discipline is the heart of the military culture, and trust is its soul. The plague of sexual assault erodes both the heart and the soul."
Odierno told the committee that "we cannot legislate our way out of this problem."
He acknowledged the service had "failed in our efforts to date to protect" soldiers and civilians from sexual assault and harassment.
Commanders, however, need to keep their authority in handling sexual assault cases, Odierno said. Removing that authority will make commanders less accountable, affect unit discipline and delay punishment, he said.
The other chiefs on the panel agreed.
Greenert said commanders' discretion in criminal matters is critical to the Navy, where ships may be deployed far from military courts.
Gen. James Amos, the commandant of the Marine Corps, also agreed. "Commanding officers never delegate responsibility and accountability, and they should never be forced to delegate their authority," he said.
Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the panel's ranking Republican, sided with the chiefs on the issue, saying he opposed measures that would strip commanders of authority.