Since the release of a Pentagon study showing that sexual assault incidents the U.S. military have increased significantly in recent years, Congress has been under pressure to change the way in which such cases are investigated and prosecuted. The study estimated that there were 26,000 such instances within the military last year, but that just over 10 percent were actually reported. President Barack Obama called the findings an “outrage” that threatened to undercut the military’s integrity.
On December 19, right before adjourning for the year, the Senate cleared for the President’s signature a Defense Department Authorization bill that contains major changes to military personnel policy relating to sexual assault within the ranks. These include:
- Taking away military commanders’ current ability to overturn jury convictions.
- Requiring civilian review if a commander declines to prosecute a case.
- Assigning victims their own independent legal counsel.
- Mandating that anyone convicted of sexual assault be given a dishonorable discharge.
- Making it a crime to retaliate against victims who report a sexual assault.
- Eliminating the statute of limitations in rape and sexual assault cases.
The reforms are considered by many to be the most extensive rewrite of the Uniform Code of Military Conduct since the integration of the armed forces and the overturning of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” to end the ban on openly gay troops. In a statement released after the vote, Senator Claire McKaskill said:
“Today represents a huge win for victims of sexual assault, and for justice in America’s armed forces, but this is no finish line. In the months and years ahead, vigilance will be required to ensure that these historic reforms are implemented forcefully and effectively. Given the incredible advocacy and passion displayed by so many on this issue, I know we are finally, belatedly, headed in the right direction.”
The changes fell short, however, of those proposed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (NY-D), who had fought hard to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command by giving military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the power to decide which assault crimes to try.
Senator Gillibrand argued that victims often do not report assaults because they fear retaliation or punishment. The only way to ensure that justice prevails, she contended, is to remove from the system those with a potential conflict of interest or personal bias. Those opposed to the inclusion of such a provision maintained that it would undermine the military’s authority and ability to enforce discipline. Senator Gillibrand said that she will push to bring up her proposal as a separate bill next year.
The Defense Authorization bill also contained a compromise measure that would allow for the transfer of detainees from the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, to foreign countries if such individuals were deemed by a review board to no longer be a threat to U.S. security. The bill continues the existing ban on transferring detainees to facilities in the United States, however.
For more on these topics, see the October 2013 issue of Congressional Digest, “Sexual Assault in the Military,” and the January 2012 issue of International Debates, “Prosecuting Suspected Terrorists.”