Washington • Members of a House panel angry over the growing epidemic of sexual assaults in the military took a key step toward tackling the problem by passing legislation Wednesday that would strip commanding officers of their longstanding authority to unilaterally change or dismiss court-martial convictions in rape and assault cases. Lawmakers believe the revision will lead to a cultural shift and encourage victims to step forward.
The legislation, which will be folded into a broader defense policy bill that the full House will consider in the coming weeks, also would impose harsher penalties on service members found guilty of sexual offenses by requiring that they be dismissed or dishonorably discharged.
The moves by the House Armed Services military personnel subcommittee reflect outrage on Capitol Hill over the poor results military leaders have achieved in their efforts to combat sexual assault in the ranks.
A Pentagon report released earlier this month estimated that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes.
The report showed the number of sexual assaults actually reported by members of the military rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012. But a survey of personnel who were not required to reveal their identities showed the number of service members actually assaulted could be as high as 26,000. That figure is an increase over the 19,000 estimated assaults in 2011.
Congress has repeatedly challenged the military to take more aggressive steps to curb sexual assault. But the new figures convinced lawmakers that military leaders have not done enough and that swift legislative action is needed. President Barack Obama has weighed in as well, declaring that he wants to eliminate the "scourge" of sexual assault.
The subcommittee's vote came after a string of incidents that raised fresh doubts about the military's commitment to tackling the problem.
The Army said Wednesday that a soldier has been charged with secretly photographing and videotaping women at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, including in a bathroom. Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon is facing charges of dereliction of duty, mistreatment, entering a women's bathroom without notice, and taking and possessing inappropriate photos and videos of at least a dozen women who were naked or in various states of undress.
Just before the Pentagon's report on sexual assault statistics was released, the Air Force officer who led the service's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit was arrested on charges of groping a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot. Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski was removed from his post after the Air Force learned of his arrest.
Rep. Joe Wilson, R-S.C., the military personnel subcommittee chairman, said the proposed changes are significant and will give assault victims the confidence to report crimes.
Rep. Michael Turner, R-Ohio, who along with Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., wrote several of the provisions included in the subcommittee's bill, criticized the Defense Department's approach to the problem.
"I think the leadership of the military is confused," Turner said. "They believe as long as they have programs where they say sexual assault is wrong that they've done enough. No. They have to support the victim, and they have to support vigorous prosecution."
Turner and Tsongas are co-chairs of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus.
Separately, the Senate Armed Services Committee is taking up a series of sexual assault prevention measures next month. A final plan will eventually be produced after any differences between the House and Senate are resolved.
Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, plan to introduce legislation Thursday with several of the same provisions drafted by Turner and Tsongas. The McCaskill-Collins bill also includes additional measures to protect the victims during the legal process. For example, lawyers for an alleged assailant must coordinate any interviews with the victim through the prosecuting counsel.
The push to eliminate a commander's ability to reverse criminal convictions of service members is rooted in a case that stoked anger among congressional lawmakers. Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, a former inspector general at Aviano Air Base in Italy, was found guilty by a military panel in November 2012 of charges of abusive sexual contact and aggravated sexual assault. Wilkerson was sentenced to a year in prison and dismissal from the service, but Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the 3rd Air Force at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, reviewed the case and overturned the jury's verdict of guilty.
Franklin explained in a six-page letter to the Air Force secretary that he found Wilkerson and his wife, who both denied the charges, more believable than the alleged victim.
The authority wielded by Wilkerson and other senior commanders who are responsible for establishing courts-martial leaves victims of sexual assault wary of coming forward because they fear no one will believe them, according to lawmakers advocating the change.
But that clout has been embedded in the military justice system for decades and stems from the longstanding belief that military commanders must be directly responsible for good order and discipline in their units. Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has said it's a mistake to strip commanders of their authority.
"For Congress to reach down and change 200 years of tradition because people don't like what the commander did in Aviano, I think sends a terrible signal to the military justice system," Graham told reporters earlier this month. "The issue here is why are there so many assaults and why is it so hard to get people to come forward."
McCaskill is holding up the nomination of Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, tapped to serve as vice commander of the U.S. Space Command, until McCaskill gets more information about Helms' decision to overturn a jury conviction in a sexual assault case.
According to the military personnel subcommittee's legislation, commanders would no longer have the discretion to reverse a court-martial ruling, except in cases involving minor offenses. Commanders also are barred from reducing a guilty finding by a court-martial to guilty of a lesser offense.
The subcommittee's draft proposal also requires an individual found guilty of rape, sexual assault, forcible sodomy or an attempt to commit any of those offenses receive a punishment that includes a dismissal from military service or a dishonorable discharge.
The subcommittee's legislation eliminates the five-year statute of limitations on trial by court-martial for sexual assault and sexual assault of a child. It also establishes the authority for military legal counsel to provide legal assistance to victims of sex-related offenses and requires enhanced training for all military and civilian attorneys involved in sex-related cases.
The panel's bill contains a provision that extends federal whistle-blower protections to victims to ensure they don't face reprisal for reporting incidents of sexual assault.