WASHINGTON — Lawmakers from both parties rebuked the Pentagon on Tuesday for failing to curtail sexual assaults in the military, arguing that the inability of commanders to solve the problem may mean they need to be stripped of the power to decide on prosecuting and punishing offenders.
With 26,000 service members reporting "unwanted sexual contact" last year — and evidence that many still fear retaliation if they report an assault to a superior — Congress is preparing to take up a bill by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., that would shift decisions on serious crimes, including rape, from commanders to independent military prosecutors.
That plan faces steadfast opposition from top military officials, even as they acknowledge that many sexual assault victims decide against lodging complaints, fearing they will be ostracized in their units, their careers will suffer and perpetrators will be protected by their chain of command.
Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the heads of the four military services argued Tuesday in an Armed Services Committee hearing that eliminating commanders' roles in deciding such cases could make it even harder to hold perpetrators accountable.
"We're failing," acknowledged Gen. Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff. "But removing commanders, making commanders less responsible and less accountable will not work."
The clash is a rare instance in which women lawmakers, now more than a quarter of the 26 members of the influential committee, are taking a lead role in challenging the Pentagon brass. Several say they no longer believe that the military's largely male command structure can deal with the problem, whose victims are disproportionately females.
"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases," said Gillbrand, staring down at the phalanx of senior generals and admirals at the witness table.