Impatient Congress presses ahead on military sexual-assault law

Michael DoyleMcClatchy Newspapers

In what seems like a case of ready-fire-aim, Congress is rewriting military sexual-assault laws and policies without waiting for the recommendations of an expert panel that lawmakers themselves once deemed necessary.

On Thursday and Friday, in a courtroom several blocks from the Capitol, the nine-member expert panel established by Congress was to continue its painstaking study of how the military responds to sexual assault. The panel’s recommendations won’t be finished until next summer.

Congress, meanwhile, is already pulling the trigger. As early as next week, the Senate will vote on some potentially far-reaching changes to military law that include a controversial proposal to remove sexual assault and other serious felonies from the usual chain of command.

“Congress set the timeline,” Army Maj. Gen. Gary S. Patton, the director of the Defense Department’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, said cautiously in an interview Thursday. “The panel has been very deliberative in its collection of information . . . we will be as responsive as possible.”

A former battalion commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, based at Fort Bragg, N.C., Patton steered clear Thursday of discussing pending legislation or the possibility that Congress might legislate prematurely. Instead, in testimony before the awkwardly named but impressively staffed Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, Patton emphasized the Pentagon’s ongoing actions, as well as newly completed research.

The new data shows what Patton termed an unprecedented 46 percent increase in reports of military sexual assault during the first three quarters of fiscal 2013, compared with the first three quarters of fiscal 2012. All told, 3,553 instances of alleged sexual assault were reported to the Defense Department from October 2012 through June 2013.

“It’s expected,” Patton told the panel, adding that the increased reporting is “most likely due to greater victim confidence as a result of the programs we have put into place.”

During the comparable nine-month period in Fiscal 2012, 2,434 instances of alleged sexual assault were reported to the Defense Department.

Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, who’s pushing one set of military justice revisions, called the increase in reported assaults a sign of progress, in that victims “have the confidence to come forward, without us removing all accountability from commanders.” McCaskill opposes an amendment championed by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York that would remove sexual assault cases from the usual chain of command.

Lawmakers think it’s time to take action now.

"There have already been dozens of reports on this issue and the military has had more than 20 years to solve this problem. How much longer should victims have to wait to get a fair shot at justice?" Gillibrand spokeswoman Bethany Lesser said.

Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer of California, a Gillibrand supporter, also asked “how much longer” sexual assault victims must wait for Congress to act.

Gillibrand on Thursday praised a vote by a separate Defense Department advisory committee in support of her amendment removing sexual assault charges from the chain of command.

A vote on Gillibrand’s amendment is expected to be close when the Senate takes up the fiscal 2014 defense authorization bill. The bill itself, which already includes myriad other changes relating to military sexual assault, will be wrapped up and signed into law well before the expert panel has finished its work.

“It really doesn’t make that much sense,” Rachel VanLandingham, a former Air Force officer, said of the legislative timing in an interview Thursday, “but on the other hand, I understand the pressure (lawmakers) are under.”

VanLandingham, a visiting assistant professor at the Stetson University College of Law in Gulfport, Fla., has testified twice before the expert panel. She said that if Congress “really wants to study the issue and create a well-thought-out solution, then they would wait” for the panel to conclude.

Congress established the expert panel in a defense authorization bill that passed late last year. Its seven female and two male members boast diverse backgrounds. One, retired Army Brig. Gen. Colleen McGuire, was the first female commandant of the U.S. Disciplinary Barracks at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. Another, former Air Force space operations officer Elizabeth Hillman, is the academic dean and provost at the University of California Hastings College of the Law.

“I don’t think it makes much sense for Congress to change (military law) without this panel’s report,” Christopher W. Behan, a former Army officer who’s an associate professor at Southern Illinois University School of Law, said in an email interview Thursday. “The panel is doing a fantastic job of fulfilling its mandate to gather information, study the issues and make recommendations.”

By the end of Friday, the panel will have completed its fifth all-day session. More than 70 witnesses will have been heard from, ranging from Behan and an Army master sergeant stationed at Joint Base Lewis-McChord in Washington state to the civilian deputy director of the Texas Association Against Sexual Assault.

“This panel is committed to investigate, to hear all sides and to find the facts necessary to report thoughtful and sensible recommendations,” panel Chair Barbara S. Jones, a retired federal judge, said at the opening session June 27.

The panel members were named in May, about four months after President Barack Obama signed the last defense bill into law. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel sped up the panel’s reporting deadline so that the recommendations are due one year after the panel’s initial meeting, instead of the 18 months Congress originally specified.

Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Panel
By Michael Doyle
McClatchy Washington Bureau