A Failure on Military Sexual Assaults
The spate of alarming incidents in recent months underscoring the depth of the military’s sexual assault problem did not dissuade Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, from killing the most promising corrective on the table.
Even as he did that, he spoke of the need to address the crisis. “We have a problem with the underreporting of sexual assaults,” he said. “We have a problem with the inadequate investigation of sexual assaults. We have a problem with the lack of support for victims of sexual assaults. We have a problem with retaliation, ostracism and peer pressure against such victims. And we have a problem with a culture that has taken inadequate steps to correct this situation.”
Mr. Levin, a Democrat of Michigan, then proceeded to put forward his amendment to the 2014 defense authorization bill — which passed by a 17-to-9 vote — to strike a bipartisan measure championed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat of New York. Ms. Gillibrand’s proposal would have given independent military prosecutors, rather than commanders, the power to decide which sexual assault crimes to try, fixing a basic structural flaw in the military justice system that deters people from reporting assaults.
Mr. Levin tried to soften the blow by adding provisions to make retaliation a crime and requiring review by the civilian service chief in the rare cases when a commander declines to follow a recommendation to prosecute made by military lawyers under his supervision. Mr. Levin’s claim that removing prosecution decisions from military commanders — who have no legal training and significant conflicts of interest — would “likely weaken” the response to sexual assault does not square with the evidence.
According to the Defense Department, an estimated 26,000 men and women in the military were subject to some level of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, an increase of about 40 percent over two years. The data suggest that many of the allegations involved rape, aggravated sexual assault or nonconsensual sodomy. Only 3,374 incidents were reported, and a mere 302 of the 2,558 incidents pursued by victims were actually prosecuted.
Cracking down on retaliation, though necessary, does not address the low prosecution rate or the sense among many victims that their claims, especially against someone higher in rank, will not be believed.
It is distressing that two decades of scandals could not persuade Mr. Levin to budge from his decision to support the military brass. Ms. Gillibrand says she will try again to get her measure included when the full Senate takes up the defense spending bill. She has done a diligent job of building a bipartisan coalition pressing for more sweeping change, and further debate about the sexual assault problem and its solutions can help strengthen the result when the Senate negotiates a final bill with the House.