Fight over sex assault bill turns personal

The fight over sexual assault legislation took a personal turn on Monday as a victims’ advocacy group launched a campaign-style attack against Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.). [WATCH VIDEO]

Protect Our Defenders accused McCaskill (D-Mo.) of supporting “half-measures” and “protecting the status quo” by opposing legislation from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command.

“Sen. McCaskill is fighting against common sense reforms and protecting the status quo and military leaders that have failed for decades to address the epidemic of military sexual assault,” Protect our Defenders President Nancy Parrish said in a statement. “She has said that she will give military brass another five years' before supporting an independent and impartial military justice system."

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Gillibrand’s measure was defeated in the Senate Armed Services Committee by an alternative from McCaskill and Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) that keeps cases with commanders but establishes a beefed-up review process by civilian leaders.

McCaskill has long called for the military to change the way it handles sexual assault, but her opposition to Gillibrand’s bill has pitted her against victims’ advocates like Protect Our Defenders, which says that removing cases from commanders’ hands is necessary to curb the number of assaults.

The attack ad against McCaskill signals a new front in the battle over sexual assault reform and a new willingness by advocates to go after senators who were once on the same side.


Parrish’s statement seized on comments from McCaskill to The Nation, where the Missouri senator said: “If five years from now we’re having fewer sexual assault convictions, if we have fewer reports of sexual assault that appear to be an anomaly in terms of the overall incidents coming down, I’ll be first in line.”

In response to Protect Our Defenders' comments, McCaskill spokeswoman Anamarie Rebori said that "no one else in the Senate has spent more time as a courtroom prosecutor of sex crimes, prosecuting predators and holding the hands of victims, than Sen. McCaskill."

"That’s why she’s personally invested in passing into law historic reforms that will do the most to increase reporting and boost prosecutions," Rebori said. "And it’s incredibly divisive and unfair to argue that her advocacy and leadership on this issue has been anything other than heartfelt and thoughtful.”

There’s been broad, bipartisan outrage in Congress this year over military sexual assaults following a number of incidents and a report estimating there were 26,000 assaults in 2012, up from 19,000 in 2010.

But Gillibrand’s bill, which proposes the most sweeping structural change to the military’s judicial system, is dividing those who have worked most on the issue in Congress, with some like McCaskill warning the measure would have unintended consequences.

Conservatives like Sens. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Ted Cruz (R-Texas), meanwhile, have sided with Gillibrand.

Gillibrand is trying to drum up 51 votes in the Senate for her legislation, which she will offer as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill. Her standalone measure — which would give military prosecutors, and not commanders, the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other criminal cases — currently has 35 co-sponsors.

McCaskill defended her approach at a Senate hearing Thursday, saying that suggesting she was “somehow in cahoots with the Pentagon” was wrong. McCaskill and Levin both said that a report claiming the Pentagon had approved their amendment was wrong.

“There is nobody who will be further in front of the line to kick you until you're senseless if we don't get this problem under control,” McCaskill told Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey at his confirmation hearing.

Dempsey and the full roster of the Joint Chiefs came out against Gillibrand’s legislation at a hearing last month, arguing that taking cases outside the chain of command would hamstring their ability to change the military’s climate and reduce the number of assaults.

Gillibrand and her supporters say that the chain of command is the reason that victims do not report their crimes because they fear retaliation.

While they are fighting to win the support of their colleagues, Gillibrand and McCaskill have both refrained from criticizing the other’s motives publicly, saying they have an “honest disagreement” about how to approach the issue. 

Gillibrand says that she supports what McCaskill has proposed — including case reviews, mandatory discharge and stripping commanders' ability to overturn guilty verdicts — but argues it doesn't go far enough.

Asked about the statement from Protect Our Defenders, a Gillibrand spokesman praised McCaskill's efforts.

"We agree the military has failed for more than two decades to solve this problem despite their pledges of zero tolerance, and it is time to fix a system the military leadership themselves admit is not working," Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin said. "We do not doubt that Sen. McCaskill shares our goal of ending sexual assaults in the military."