OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Hearing returns focus to sex assault debate

The Topline: Two sexual assault victims told Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) Armed Services Personnel subcommittee Wednesday that they supported her effort to take sexual assault cases outside the chain of command.

The victims, retired Marine Lance Cpl. Jeremiah Arbogast and Pfc. Jessica Kenyon, told their stories of how they eventually left the military in the aftermath of their assaults while their victims avoided jail time.

Arbogast talked about how the post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) that followed his assault eventually led him to try to take his own life. The self-inflicted gunshot wound left him in a wheelchair with a spinal cord injury.

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“I joined the Marines in order to serve my country as an honorable man. Instead, I was raped and thrown away like a piece of garbage,” Arborgast said.

The dramatic testimony came as Gillibrand pushes for a vote on her bill to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command — and seeks five more senators to support it.

Gillibrand’s bill to remove the decision to prosecute criminal cases from commanders was not the focus of Wednesday’s hearing, but it was intertwined throughout, from the endorsement of the witnesses to senators opposed to Gillibrand’s proposal telling the victims they disagreed with how to fix the problem.

“This is a problem that can never be solved if you tell the commander this is no longer your problem,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who is a military lawyer himself and one of Gillibrand’s most vocal opponent.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), who has a competing proposal that leaves commanders in charge of the decision to prosecute, emphasized other enacted reforms that could helped the victims.

She asked both Arborgast and Kenyon whether they would have benefited from their own attorney, one of the new steps passed in last year’s National Defense Authorization Act. Both agreed it would have.

Gillibrand is seeking to keep the spotlight on the issue of military sexual assault because she hopes a vote will come on her controversial proposal. Republicans blocked an attempt from Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) to bring the bills up on Monday.

The gridlock isn’t directly tied to Gillibrand’s measure — Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) objected to the votes and a day later publicly backed Gillibrand’s bill — but rather is over GOP efforts to force a vote on a new Iran sanctions measure.

Iran fight causing impasse on veterans bill, too: Republicans are also trying to prompt a vote on the Iran sanctions measure as part of a broad veterans bill from Senate Veterans' Affairs Committee Chairman Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).

The fight spells trouble for Sanders’s veterans bill, although Republicans were already objecting to the use of Overseas Contingency Operations to fund the bill.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) took to the floor Wednesday accusing the majority leader of “muzzling” the Senate by not allowing a vote on the Iran sanctions measure, which has 59 co-sponsors.

Republicans have included the Iran legislation as part of a GOP alternative to Sanders’s omnibus veterans package. Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.), who authored the alternative, said Iran sanctions were included because senators have been blocked from bringing it up any other way.

The Obama administration has asked Democrats to wait on a vote on new Iran sanctions while negotiations with Iran are ongoing, and many of the Democratic co-sponsors to the sanctions bill have said they support waiting.

Several veterans groups criticized Senate Republicans for tying the sanctions measure to the veterans bill, saying that the Senate shouldn’t get “distracted” with Iran sanctions or other measures that aren’t relevant to the veterans bill.

Pentagon to prepare for carrier retirement next year: The Pentagon will take pre-emptive steps next year to retire a carrier, said a top defense official on Wednesday. 

Defense officials say that if Congress does not lift sequestration by 2016, they will have no choice. 

“In 2015, we’ll kind of hold. We won’t take the people out. We won’t take the air wing out,” acting Deputy Defense Secretary Christine Fox said at the American Enterprise Institute on Wednesday. 

But, she added, "We’ll put the ship in the yards and start the actions you’re going to take whether you’re going to refuel it and put it back in service or take it out of service so we have time." 

The decision will surely alarm lawmakers, especially in Virginia, where the USS George Washington is slated to undergo its mid-life refueling complex overhaul. 

On Tuesday, Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) expressed concern over the fate of carriers in the defense cuts. 

“I am particularly focused on the carriers as a Virginia guy. I think carriers are our greatest and most visible force projection. There is a statutory requirement for 11 carriers,” he said.

Fewer ships, more cocaine: Defense cuts have made it easier for drug shipments to get to the United States, a commander testified on Wednesday.

The cuts have left fewer ships on the open seas to interdict drug shipments headed for Latin America, where they could be flown into Mexico and brought across the border into the U.S. 

“Less ships, less cocaine off the market,” said Gen. James F. Kelly, the commander of the U.S. Southern Command, during a House Armed Services Committee hearing on Wednesday. 

Kelly said due to the lack of ships, he has no choice but to watch most of it head into Latin America. 

“But 74 percent of it, I watch go by. I can't touch it. And when I say I watch it go by, in the maritime domain to Honduras primarily, it's because I don't have the assets to stop it,” Kelly said.

 

In Case You Missed It:

— NATO chief hopeful on Afghan security pact

— Dempsey concerned Afghan forces to ‘hedge their bets’

— Veterans groups: Don’t tie Iran to veterans

— Karzai says Obama made personal plea

— Survey: Most women don’t want combat jobs

 

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