Editorial: Graham wrong on chain of command

  • Posted: Wednesday, March 19, 2014 12:01 a.m.

Putting the prosecution of military sexual assaults in the hands of seasoned, unbiased prosecutors will not undermine the authority of commanders, despite concerns expressed by U.S. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

There’s a clear reason why the U.S. Senate last week was considering changes to the current system – the shocking gap in the military regarding the number of sexual assaults and the number of sexual assaults actually reported.

The Department of Defense found that in 2012, there were an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in the military, but only about 3,370 were reported. And fewer than 10 percent of those – 302 – were prosecuted.

Two bills were proposed to curb the ongoing issue. The Senate did pass a bill that tightens certain regulations, but it was a much tamer initiative compared to a sweeping overhaul proposed by U.S. Sen. Kristen Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

The changes proposed by the senator from New York were not moved forward because apparently lawmakers, including Graham, weren’t convinced that taking such cases out of commanders’ hands would substantially improve the system.

But the need to change the system is apparent – based on the numbers provided by the Department of Defense and the outcry from veteran groups. The proposal by Gillibrand would have shifted consideration of such serious crimes to professional military trial lawyers outside of the chain of military command. This is where such decisions need to be made.

While the proposal was defeated on a procedural vote, it did receive bipartisan support, including from Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as well as Tea Party favorite Ted Cruz, R-Texas.

Opponents of the bill, including officials at the Pentagon, have expressed concerns with the possible cost of setting up an independent office to help adjudicate such cases. But employing attorneys and staff should come at a minimal cost compared to the degradation a sexual assault victim feels, especially when the perpetrator goes unpunished.

It’s undeniable that a concerted effort needs to be made to decrease, and hopefully even one day eradicate, the number of sexual assaults in the military.

Oddly, only a few days after the vote, the trial of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair opened in Fort Bragg, N.C., which many considered a litmus test for whether the military was capable of fairly prosecuting such cases. Sinclair, a high-profile commander, was accused of forcing a female captain to commit sexual acts, but the most damaging charges were dropped as part of a plea deal, leading to legitimate questions about whether the military could effectively try such cases.

It’s clear that even in a year where significant cuts to the Pentagon’s budget have been proposed, sexual assaults have emerged as one of the defining issues facing the military.

Ensuring that justice is served should be a top priority. But by not passing Gillibrand’s bill, some senators, including Graham, appear to be keeping their heads in the sand when it comes to accomplishing that goal.

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