Pentagon: Sexual assault issues must be handled 'internally'

The Defense Department remains adamant military commanders should be responsible for curbing military sexual assault within their units, despite pending legislation to take that authority out of the chain of command. 

Pentagon and service leaders would rather "address this problem inside the institution," according to Defense Department spokesman George Little. 

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"We think we can work this internally," Little told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. 

His comments come after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) mounted one last push for her bill, designed to take military sexual assault cases out of the hands of military commanders. 

Gillibrand has actively lobbied her colleagues for months on the legislation, which would take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other major crimes away from commanders and give it to military prosecutors.

The bill has already gained traction among a wide swath of Gillibrand's Senate colleagues. 

So far, 46 senators including Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) to Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) have publicly backed the bill. 

However, Gillibrand will likely need to cross the 60 vote threshold in the Senate, if her legislation has any chance of becoming law. 

But a number of Senate Armed Services Committee members, most notably panel chairman Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), have pushed back against the New York Democrat's proposal. 

Senate defense committee member Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said he would “do whatever it takes to make sure we don’t go down that road” regarding the changes called for in the Gillibrand bill. 

On Friday, Little would not say directly that the Pentagon opposes the Gillibrand bill. 

"We are working through various options with members of Congress" on how to address the problem of sexual assault in the military, Little said. 

Backers of the bill claim that commanders' biases and a military culture tolerant of sexual assault is the main reason why such violations should be handled by military prosecutors. 

“Instead of the zero tolerance pledge that we have now heard for over two decades — going back to when the secretary of Defense was Dick Cheney first using those words in 1992 — what we really have today is zero accountability,” Gillibrand said during a Wednesday press conference on Capitol Hill. 

But opponents of her bill say that the decision to prosecute cases must remain in the chain of command so that commanders are held accountable for their command climate on sexual assault, and so they retain the ability to punish perpetrators.

The proposal is headed for a vote on the Senate floor later this month during debate on the defense authorization bill.