Sen. Graham treads path alone on military sexual assaults policy

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) is staking out a lonely position on how the military should stop a rise in sexual assaults.

Graham opposes changes to the military’s judicial system, including stripping commanders’ ability to overturn guilty verdicts — a stance that puts him at odds with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, military leaders and lawmakers from both parties.

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He has been the only lawmaker in recent weeks to take a vocal position against that change, as an outcry has emerged in Congress to tackle the issue.

But Graham’s isolated position has hardly stopped the South Carolina Republican from speaking frequently about military sexual assault, as he has downplayed the judicial changes and focused on what he thinks will help solve the problem.

On Sunday, Graham called for the firing of commanders who allow sexual assaults within their ranks, drawing praise from advocates who are pushing Congress to change the way the military handles sexual assault cases.

“I want to salute the women who served and are putting up with way too much crap. This needs to end,” Graham said on “Fox News Sunday.”

“Commanders who allow this to continue to flourish, quite frankly, should be fired,” he said.

Still, Graham is walking a delicate line with his contrarian view on military sexual assault, giving him a unique role in a debate that’s generated an unprecedented level of public attention in recent weeks.

President Obama has called on the military to take action to address the problem in the wake of a Pentagon report estimating 26,000 assaults in 2012, an increase of more than a third from 2010.

Congress has put forward a multitude of proposals in response, and there has been broad consensus to prevent commanders from overturning a jury’s guilty verdict. Hagel proposed the change after he reviewed an Air Force case in which a commander dismissed a sexual assault verdict earlier this year, and the Republican-led House Armed Services Committee has included it in initial markups of the defense authorization bill. The Senate Armed Services panel is expected to do the same next month.

Graham has warned that the proposal will do damage to the military.

“I understand this is an emotional issue, but what they are trying to do is going to do more harm to the military than solve the sexual assault problem,” he said earlier this month. “The reason we have a rise in sexual assaults has nothing to do with commanders setting aside findings.”

Graham is speaking from firsthand experience. He comes at the issue from a unique perspective in Congress because he was a Judge Advocate General (JAG) in the Air Force in the 1980s and remains a military attorney in the Air Force Reserves.

Graham argues that the problem is a cultural one, and that changing the judicial rules will not fix it. In addition to firing commanders, Graham says he supports expanding an Air Force pilot program providing special counsel to sexual assault victims.

“We’re talking about a universal concept in our military that the commander who has the power to order you in battle also has the power to discipline and make individual decisions for what’s best in the unit,” Graham said in March when the issue started heating up.

Congressional aides from both parties who work on the issue say there’s little doubt that Graham is angry about the problem and committed to fixing it. But they question why he has resisted changes to the military’s judicial code that have received endorsements from military leaders.

“I do think there’s a sincerity there in being angry at the problem, but I don’t think there’s recognition of what the solution is that’s required,” said one Democratic aide.

A Republican aide said that Graham, who is up for reelection in 2014, could be taking his state’s politics into account, as South Carolina contains a sizable number of veterans. Graham is most concerned about a primary challenge from his right in 2014.

“Some of the rhetoric that comes from the other side of the aisle is vilifying the troops instead of the people who are taking these actions,” said the GOP aide, suggesting that Graham could therefore be seen as standing with the troops by opposing the changes.

 A Graham spokesman said it was “nonsense” to suggest politics were driving his opposition to the judicial code changes.

The military’s convening authority structure dates back to the Continental Congress, and the proposal to strip commanders’ ability to overturn verdicts would be among the most significant changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in decades.

“Some people would want to imply that because this step is endorsed by the department and both Republicans and Democrats, thereby it’s just an easy, obvious, inconsequential step. None of those things are true,” said another GOP aide. “Graham is right that this is a big step.”

Other Republicans on the Senate Armed Services panel, which will take up sexual assault legislation next month, have either endorsed the proposed post-trial review changes or have not yet taken a position.

Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the panel’s top Republican, initially expressed resistance to changing the judicial code, but has since said he’s willing to go as far as Hagel’s proposed changes to overturn verdicts.

Graham is the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Personnel subcommittee, giving him a key role in the panel that has jurisdiction on sexual assault. Graham has said he’s eager to debate the issue, though he’s not sure yet whether he will propose his own legislative changes.

The subpanel’s chairwoman is Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), who has produced the Senate’s most sweeping sexual assault legislation. She has argued that the decision to prosecute cases should be taken out of the chain of command, which has received a more divided response.

In March, Gillibrand held the committee’s first hearing on sexual assault in nearly a decade.

Graham asked each of the services’ top attorneys whether they believed the authority ought to remain inside the chain of command. All agreed, drawing an angry retort from Gillibrand.

“I am extremely disturbed based on the last round of questioning that each of you believes that the convening authority is what maintains discipline and order within your ranks,” she said.