OVERNIGHT DEFENSE: Obama meets with chiefs on sexual assault

The president’s involvement highlights the level of attention that the issue is now receiving in Washington.

“The political landscape has changed dramatically,” Sen. Dianne FeinsteinDianne Emiel FeinsteinLawmakers feel pressure on guns Feinstein: Trump must urge GOP to pass bump stock ban Florida lawmakers reject motion to consider bill that would ban assault rifles MORE (D-Calif.) told reporters Thursday. “I think really for the first time, people understand how bad it is, and particularly in a military that is seeking equality among the sexes. You just can’t have this going on.”

The president’s meeting occurred on the same day that Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandAmerican women will decide who wins and loses in 2018 elections Dems ponder gender politics of 2020 nominee Calls mount from Dems to give platform to Trump accusers  MORE (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation to make a significant change to the military’s judicial system, which would put the decision to prosecute felony-level crimes in the hands of military prosecutors, not commanders.

Her bill, introduced Thursday with 15 co-sponsors in the Senate, would be a major change to the way the military handles criminal case. She and supporters of the measure argue that removing the decision from commanders will encourage victims concerned about retaliation to report their crimes.

“This is the only way provide the unbiased justice that our victims need,” Gillibrand said as she unveiled the bill at a press conference with sexual assault victims and advocates.

She has three Republican co-sponsors on the bill: Sens. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Tech: Judge blocks AT&T request for DOJ communications | Facebook VP apologizes for tweets about Mueller probe | Tech wants Treasury to fight EU tax proposal Overnight Regulation: Trump to take steps to ban bump stocks | Trump eases rules on insurance sold outside of ObamaCare | FCC to officially rescind net neutrality Thursday | Obama EPA chief: Reg rollback won't stand FCC to officially rescind net neutrality rules on Thursday MORE (Maine), Mike JohannsMichael (Mike) Owen JohannsFarmers, tax incentives can ease the pain of a smaller farm bill Lobbying World To buy a Swiss company, ChemChina must pass through Washington MORE (Neb.) and Chuck GrassleyCharles (Chuck) Ernest GrassleyPavlich: The claim Trump let the mentally ill get guns is a lie Congress fails miserably: For Asian-Americans, immigration proposals are personal attacks Grassley, Dems step up battle over judicial nominees MORE (Iowa).

Armed Services chairmen staying neutral: Both House Armed Services Committee Chairman Buck McKeon (R-Calif.) and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinSen. Gillibrand, eyeing 2020 bid, rankles some Democrats The Hill's 12:30 Report Congress needs bipartisanship to fully investigate Russian influence MORE (D-Mich.) are waiting to say whether they will back Gillibrand’s proposal.

The two chairmen will play an important role in the bill’s fate because the vehicle for all the sexual assault proposals in Congress is the annual defense authorization bill, which will be marked up in both chambers in May and June.

McKeon told The Hill Thursday that he has some concerns about a commander's ability to maintain good order and discipline if he or she loses the ability to prosecute crimes. But he added that he hasn’t made any decisions yet.

“This is a very seriously problem, but I think we have to be very, very careful of how we address it,” McKeon told The Hill. 

“I have those concerns, but I want to explore it from both sides,” he said. “I don’t want to do anything rashly.”

Levin didn’t raise those concerns — which are most frequently cited by critics of the proposal — but he did say that he wanted to ensure a commander’s ability to use non-judicial punishments was not affected by the bill.

“Part of it is clearly the right way to go, and that’s the part about not allowing the commander, the convening authority to reverse a conviction,” Levin said Wednesday, referring to proposals to strip commanders’ ability to overturn verdicts, which has been endorsed by Hagel and many lawmakers.

“The more complex issue is what to do up front, whether or not to take away from the commander that power and put it in the hands of somebody else,” he said.

War on al Qaeda could last decades: America's more than decade-long fight to dismantle al Qaeda and other Islamic militant offshoots will continue to be a fact of life of U.S. national security for decades to come, a top Pentagon official told Congress. 

While American and allied forces have taken out much of the terror group's senior leadership, including al Qaeda chieftain Osama bin Laden, the war on al Qaeda is far from over. 

"In my judgment, this is gonna go on for quite awhile," Michael Sheehan, head of the Pentagon's special operations and low-intensity conflict directorate, told the Senate Armed Service Committee on Thursday. 

When panel member Sen. Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamCongress punts fight over Dreamers to March Pence tours Rio Grande between US and Mexico GOP looks for Plan B after failure of immigration measures MORE (R-S.C.) asked Sheehan exactly how long that could be, he replied: "I think it's at least 10 to 20 years."

Graham's questions on Tuesday centered around whether it was time to change the rules of war governing the fight against al Qaeda, known as the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF).

From the U.S. terror detainee program to armed drone strikes, the rules have allowed American forces to kill most of the terror group’s senior leaders, including bin Laden.

But more than a decade after the law was approved, White House counterterrorism officials have used the law's mandates to expand the scope of those operations far beyond hunting down the perpetrators of 9/11. 

The rules of war passed by Congress after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks allowed the U.S. "to be at war with al Qaeda" no matter how long that war lasts, Robert Taylor, the Defense Department's acting general counsel, told committee members. 

"That organization ... has associated forces, forces that have joined with that organization," he said. "And, yes sir, we are authorized to attack ... those who have chosen to associate with that organization." 

Afghan fighting season hits Kabul: The new fighting season came crashing into Kabul on Thursday when massive car bomb ripped through an American convoy traveling through the city, killing 16 people, including six American military advisers.

A statement by International Security Assistance Forces (ISAF) said two soldiers and four civilian contractors were killed in Thursday's blast, but did not include further details.

It was the first major strike against U.S. and coalition targets inside the Afghan capitol in several months.

Earlier this year, U.S. and coalition commanders warned that singular strikes on high-profile targets like Thursday's attack would be the hallmark of this year's fighting season in Afghanistan.

Thursday's attack in Kabul comes as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey wrapped up a two-day conference with NATO generals on the coalition's postwar plan for Afghanistan. 

"It is still harvest season in Afghanistan, and I suspect we've not seen the height of this year's offensive," Dempsey told reporters while returning from the conference at the alliance's headquarters in Brussels. 

"But this year, unlike years past, the offensive will be aimed at the [Afghan National Security Forces] not us, because, again, the Afghans will be in the lead," the four-star general said.

On Tuesday, four American soldiers were killed in southern Afghanistan when their convoy was hit by a massive roadside bomb when traveling through the Zhari district in Kandahar province, according to recent reports. 

The Kandahar attack took place a day after insurgents detonated a truck bomb outside a NATO base in Helmand province's Musa Qala district. 

The three NATO soldiers based in a unit from Georgia were killed in the Musa Qala strike. 

In Case You Missed It: 

— Counterterror laws trample Congress war powers

— Obama: Syria talks may yield results

— Sequester forces Air Force bases to go dark 

— White House to Congress: Focus on diplomat security

Please send tips and comments to Jeremy Herb, jherb@thehill.com, and Carlo Muñoz, cmunoz@thehill.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @DEFCONHill, @JHerbTheHill, @CMunozTheHill

You can sign up to receive this overnight update via email on The Hill’s homepage.