Pentagon advisory panel backs removing cases from chain of command

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) is pushing legislation that would take cases away from commanders and give them to military prosecutors. Her bill has the support of 45 senators, according to a tally by her office, but it is opposed by military leaders, including Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel.

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The panel’s recommendation was cited by lawmakers as reason for the Pentagon to reconsider its position on taking cases outside the chain of command.

“Now, Secretary Hagel should listen to his own advisory committee and immediately back the Gillibrand-Boxer proposal to remove decisions about sexual assault prosecutions from the chain of command,” Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who worked with Gillibrand on her measure, said in a statement.

The advisory group said that it made its recommendation because victims said they do not come forward “because they lack confidence in the system.”

“They do not think their complaints will get a fair and impartial hearing, they do not think perpetrators will be held accountable and they fear that they will suffer reprisals,” the committee said in its recommendation.

“Unfortunately, recent events have shown these fears to be justified, and may also have communicated to perpetrators that they need not fear being held accountable for their actions.”

Gillibrand’s legislation still faces an uphill climb to become law — or even get passed in the Senate.

She faces opposition within her own party from Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.) and Sen. Claire McCaskill (Mo.), who has long been a major voice on the issue.

Gillibrand plans to try to include her measure as an amendment to the Defense authorization bill, which is not expected to come to the floor until December.

If she is successful, the Republican-led House panel has expressed resistance to her plan and it could be removed during conference committee.

Levin, McCaskill and other opponents of removing cases from commanders argue that commanders must maintain the responsibility so they can be held accountable for changing the military’s culture when it comes to sexual assault.

Lawmakers have pressed for changes to the way the military handles sexual assaults after a Pentagon report released this year estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact last year, an increase from 19,000 in 2010.

The 17-member independent panel was established in the 1950s to provide recommendations on issues relating to recruitment and retention of women in the military.