Inhofe: Not 'serious problem' how military handles abuse cases

The Pentagon is not suffering from "a serious problem" of military commander's overturning sexual assault convictions and should postpone any proposed changes to military law, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) said Tuesday. 

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has recommended stripping military commanders' ability to overturn convictions of service members on sexual assault or abuse charges under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ). 

ADVERTISEMENT
But instances of military commanders reducing or nixing those convictions are relatively low, Inhofe said. 

Occasions where top military brass have ordered a UCMJ ruling in sexual abuse cases overturned were in the single digits across the four branches of the armed forces, according to Inhofe, who based his assertion on research done by his staff.

"I'm going to put this into the record, but ... it sounds to me like there is not a serious problem here," he said during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the Army's budget plan for fiscal year 2014. 

The Pentagon is still working on the number of commander reversals on sexual abuse convictions for reported cases in each military branch. Pentagon officials have estimated that roughly one percent of sexual assault convictions have been overturned.

The Pentagon estimates there are 19,000 sexual assaults in the military annually, while only about 3,000 incidents are reported.

"We trust you with our son's and daughter's lives, but we don't trust you or your discretion when it comes to [sexual assault] offenses," Inhofe told Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Army Secretary John McHugh, who were testifying before the panel. 

"This seems a little bit hard for normal people to believe that you would have that responsibility but not have that responsibility in terms of what they are doing," he added. 

Hagel's recommended UCMJ changes came in the wake of an Air Force sexual assault case from Aviano Air Base where Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin dismissed a guilty verdict in a post-trial review. 

The dismissal sparked a firestorm from lawmakers in both parties and prompted Hagel to review the military’s judicial policies, leading to his proposal. 

Odierno told members of the Senate defense panel that a commander's role to enforce military law among their troops "is simply essential." 

"It's critical to our system. It's essential to the commander's authority," the four-star general said. "The commander needs the ability to punish quickly, locally and visibly, which impacts the overall discipline of the force." 

Any potential changes to a commander's role in military must be done "in a very measured way," McHugh said. 

While the Army secretary told lawmakers he personally supported Hagel's proposal, "any steps beyond that I think should be done very carefully," McHugh said.

A worst-case scenario, Odierno said, would be any UCMJ changes that diminish commanders' "authority and ability to maintain standard order and discipline."  

Under former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and now Hagel, the Pentagon has undertaken a number of initiatives to try to curb the prevalence of sexual assault and encourage reporting the crimes. Some other changes have come from Congress in the Defense authorization bill.

But critics say the changes made don’t get at the heart of the problem, and the military’s approach to dealing with sexual assault has come under attack in the wake of several recent scandals. 

Updated at 5:58 p.m.