Senate blocks justice for military sexual assault survivors

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The Army’s top sexual assault prosecutor has been suspended for allegedly groping another lawyer. At a sexual assault legal conference. It’s one in a pattern of dumbfounding incidents that make it clear that the Pentagon is not equipped to deal effectively with the military sexual assault epidemic.  Yet 45 senators stood in the way of progress today, carrying the water for those who want to keep power in the hands of people with a track record of inadequate response to the problem.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) has been fighting for months to build support for a proposal to take prosecution of military sexual assaults out of the chain of command:

Before Thursday’s vote, she said on the Senate floor that victims don’t report sexual assaults because they don’t trust their commanders.

“It’s like your brother committing the sexual assault and having your father decide whether to prosecute,” Gillibrand said. “The victims and the survivors of sexual assault have been walking the halls of Congress asking that we do something to protect them.”

Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) joined Gillibrand in saying it’s long past time for Congress to act.

“We’re passed the point of tinkering. … The current structure of the military justice system is having a deterrent effect on reporting,” Grassley said. “Sexual assault is a law enforcement matter, not a military one.”

The arguments of opponents of the bill ring hollow. Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-CA) wrote of going outside of the chain of command, “while well-intentioned, this is the wrong option because it is impossible to hold someone accountable for fixing a problem when you relieve them of their responsibility to do so. In fact, removing a commander’s ability to move cases forward removes an important tool for protecting victims.”

It seems highly unlikely that a commander could completely wash his or her hands of an incident, and could not be looped in on accountability, just because the prosecution happens outside the chain of command. Sen. Gillibrand quotes Brig. Gen. (ret.) Pat Foote, the first female inspector general in the U.S. Army:

 “I cannot see how a commander’s authority would be undermined and that he/she would somehow not be able to set the proper command climate to support the unit’s mission if cases proceed to trial based on the strengths and weaknesses of the evidence. When I was a commander in my first command assignment, I did not have general court martial convening authority. The regional commander, a one-star admiral, held that authority. My having to refer the most serious cases to him did not in any way lessen my charge and ability to lead my sailors and officers effectively … and certainly did not absolve me of any accountability for good order and discipline and mission accomplishment.”

Sen. Gillibrand, military sexual assault survivors, and activists aligned with their cause put up an admirable fight to get these changes passed into law. Many senators crossed parties in both directions, with 44 Democrats and 11 Republicans voting in favor of bringing the bill to the floor (the procedural motion that requires a filibuster-proof 60 votes). You can see how your senators voted here. Setbacks like this are disappointing, but also a reality we have to deal with in fighting for social justice. It doesn’t mean these reforms can’t succeed in the future, and expressing our outrage will help light a fire under the defenders of the status quo.

As Sen. Gillibrand said in her statement about today’s vote:

For the men and women who sign up to serve our country for all the right reasons – only to be twice betrayed by their chain of command – if they can find the courage to make their voices heard to strengthen the military they hold so dear– we have to keep up this fight.

We will continue to the fight for justice and accountability. That is our duty.


Author: Rebecca Griffin

I am a passionate advocate for progressive causes with over a decade of experience organizing for social change. That organizing experience informs the way I look at the world and the challenges we face in working toward social justice. I started Of Means and Ends to write about social issues I care about and share my thoughts on how we organize in a smart, strategic way. Please visit and join the conversation.

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