Her legislation, which has 18 cosponsors including four Republicans, also would take away a commander’s authority to convene a court-martial. That responsibility would be given to new and separate offices outside the victim’s chain of command.
Commanders would maintain their current authority in the legal process in cases of espionage, theft, sedition and conduct unbecoming an officer in her bill.
Odierno, the Army’s chief of staff, said a commander’s ability to punish quickly, visibly and at the unit level is essential to maintaining discipline within the ranks.
“Without equivocation, I believe maintaining the central role of the commander in our military justice system is absolutely critical,” Odierno said.
The Air Force’s top officer, Gen. Mark Welsh, said airmen should have no doubt about who will hold them accountable.
“Commanders having the authority to hold airmen criminally accountable for misconduct … is crucial to building combat-ready, disciplined units,” Welsh said.
The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2012, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., a co-sponsor of the Gillibrand bill and chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, called the legislation “bold” and “out of the box.” She dismissed concerns that it goes too far in overhauling the military justice system, saying it’s time to try a new approach to solving a problem that has persisted for years.
“I think 26,000 sexual assaults is going too far,” Mikulski said. “And now there is even a criminal investigation of the football team at the Naval Academy, where we are training the next best.”
Last week, the Pentagon said the U.S. Naval Academy is investigating allegations that three football team members sexually assaulted a female midshipman at an off-campus house more than a year ago. A lawyer for the woman says she was “ostracized” on campus after she reported it.
In recent weeks, a soldier at the U.S. Military Academy was charged with secretly photographing women, including in a bathroom. The Air Force officer who led the service’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit was arrested on charges of groping a woman. And the manager of the Army’s sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., was relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife.
Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, top Republican on the committee, said he was wary of proposals to restrict the authority of commanders to discipline their troops.
“To take the commander out of the process will invite failure,” Inhofe said in a speech on the Senate floor Monday. “These commanders have to make decisions to send our brave troops into battle. How ludicrous is it that we would say to our commanders, ‘You’ve got to make a decision to send one of our kids into battle where they may end up losing their life, but you can’t participate in the justice system of the troops.’ It doesn’t make any sense at all.”