Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) said on Tuesday that she will introduce legislation to address how the military handles sexual assault claims, including making sexual harassment a stand-alone offense under the military’s criminal justice system.
McSally, a member of the Armed Services Committee who is up for reelection in 2020, is expected to introduce the proposal as soon as Wednesday with the goal of getting most, if not all, of it included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), a defense policy bill that passes every year.
“Our intent is to include as much as possible in the mark up of the defense bill next week,” McSally told reporters at a lunch hosted by Winning for Women, an outside group aimed at supporting female GOP candidates. “We’ve had very positive conservations so far.”
McSally’s legislation, according to a one-page summary, focuses on changes in four categories: prevention and training, victim support, investigation and prosecution.
“What we’re trying to do is team up the JAGs [judge advocate generals] and the investigators early on in the process. …It needs to not be informal,” McSally told an all-female group of reporters.
She said that her focus as she put together a proposal was on what is “the best possible investigation, with the best possible support to the victim, with the due process that the accused deserves as well?”
“The theme for me … was timeliness is a real challenge of the time it takes for these investigations and the whole judicial process to go on,” she said, recounting her conversations with military officials in Arizona. “There’s nothing good that happens if these linger for long periods of time.”
The legislation comes as the Senate Armed Services Committee is expected to hold its closed-door markup of the NDAA next week. McSally’s proposal could be included in the initial draft from Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, or could be offered as an amendment.
McSally’s efforts to make sexual harassment a stand-alone crime would line up with plans from the Pentagon.
Acting Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said earlier this month
that sexual harassment would be made a criminal offense at the recommendation of the Sexual Assault Accountability and Investigation Task Force, which was formed at McSally’s request.
Sexual assaults in the military increased nearly 38 percent between 2016 and 2018, according to Pentagon data released earlier this month and obtained by USA Today
McSally disclosed earlier this year that she herself is a survivor of sexual assault committed by a superior officer while she served in the Air Force.
“That was not an easy decision, but I believe it was the right thing to do at the time so that I could help lead on this issue and people could maybe better understand where I was coming from,” McSally recounted in Arizona in March
McSally added on Tuesday that the level of discussion about sexual assault in the military had improved.
“When I went off to basic training … it wasn’t something that was openly discussed,” McSally said, “even though this scourge was happening in our society and our military.”
McSally’s proposal stops short of backing an effort by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would remove commanders from the process of deciding whether or not to prosecute sexual assault cases.
McSally said on Tuesday that she “strongly” disagrees with the effort, arguing that commanders are responsible for their unit.
“If you want to fix it ultimately commanders need to own it, they need to continue to own it. They need to be more prepared, more accountable, more equipped but they still need to own it,” she said. “Stripping that away from them … it’s going to take our eye off the ball.”