The US’ top military officers were likely to advise the US Congress not to go too far overhauling the military’s justice system to address the problem of sexual assault when they testify at a US Senate hearing yesterday.
Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey and top officers from each branch of the military were to comment on legislation meant to stem a rise in sexual assault cases in the military.
According to letters sent by the officers to the committee and obtained by media, the top brass support some key curbs, but seemed concerned about taking too much power away from commanders.
One measure they are likely to balk at is US Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s proposal to take responsibility for prosecuting sex crimes out of the victim’s chain of command and give it to special prosecutors.
“Victims need to know that their commander holds offenders accountable, not some unknown third-party prosecutor,” Commandant of the Marine Corps General James Amos wrote in a letter dated May 17.
A study released by the US Department of Defense last month estimated that cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent last year to about 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
There has been outcry in Congress over how the military handles such cases, including those in which commanders showed leniency to accused offenders.
That outrage has led lawmakers to put together legislation that, in some cases, commanders think goes too far.
It was unclear if words of caution from top brass will prompt lawmakers to reverse course.
In a May 20 letter, US Army Chief of Staff General Raymond Odierno wrote that changes to the system “must not be made in a piecemeal fashion. And poor decisions by a few of my commanders should not be the impetus for drastic and rapid legislative amendments.”
Still, Odierno, along with Dempsey and the top uniformed officers of the Navy, Air Force and Marines, in their letters backed an April recommendation by UD Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel to Congress to eliminate the power of senior commanders to alter verdicts in courts-martial for major crimes like murder or sexual assault.
However, Hagel also recommended commanders retain the power to alter sentences.
US defense officials have said that the ability to reduce sentences is key to being able to engage in plea bargaining, in which defendants cooperate in exchange for a lesser sentence.
Throughout their letters, the officers warned that undermining a commander’s authority too much risked also undermining his ability to ensure good order and discipline.
“A message that commanders cannot be trusted to mete out discipline will undermine this responsibility; removing commanders from the military justice process will convey just such a message,” Dempsey wrote.