On June 12, in an open session of the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC), an amendment was passed that would establish a new, automatic review process for cases of military sexual assault (MSA). The measure, supported by Committee Chair Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., would also prevent commanding officers from overturning verdicts of guilty, and would establish retaliation in such cases as a crime.
Levin's amendment, which passed committee by a 17-9 vote, replaced a proposal supported by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Her measure would have taken away the authority of commanding officers to prosecute any major criminal case, including MSA.
The amendment is included in the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) for fiscal year 2014. The SASC approved the $625 billion spending package on June 13, clearing the bill for a full Senate vote.
That same day, the House of Representatives passed by voice vote an amendment to its version of the NDAA (H.R. 1960) that would establish a mandatory two-year prison sentence for any servicemember convicted of rape or sexual assault. Other provisions included in H.R. 1960 are the removal of commanding officers' authority to overturn verdicts of guilty in MSA cases, and a requirement that servicemembers found guilty of rape or sexual assault be either dismissed from the military or receive dishonorable discharges.
The American Legion's leadership addressed the issue of prosecuting MSA cases during its Spring Meetings last May in Indianapolis. Its National Security Commission passed Resolution 9  that called on Congress "to pass legislation that will prohibit convening authorities from dismissing or setting aside a finding of guilty, or reducing a finding of guilty to a lesser included offense...."
The resolution also called upon the Secretary of Defense "to direct the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to take necessary measures to dismantle any military culture that condones, tolerates, or otherwise allows sexual assault among servicemembers as an acceptable form of behavior...."
In the SASC's open session last week, Gillibrand defended her proposal to take commanding officers completely out of the legal process when it came to MSA cases. "To reverse this crisis, I do not believe it will be enough if we do not seize the opportunity and embrace the kind of systemic reform that will truly increase accountability and objectivity – and trust in the military justice system – by having trained, legal military professionals handle the serious crimes from the beginning," she said.
Levin, whose Amendment 183 was adopted by the SASC, said his measure would address the problem of retaliation in MSA cases by making it a crime "and establishing an expectation that commander will be held accountable for failure to establish a climate in which victims can report such offenses without fear of retaliation."
Earlier this year, the Pentagon reported that about 26,000 servicemembers suffered MSA last year, but only 3,374 individuals reported the crimes.
"We have a problem with a culture that has taken inadequate steps to correct this situation," Levin said. "The members of this committee have worked to come up with a strong response to these problems.... Surely most of us, on both sides of the aisle, have made important contributions to this legislative initiative."