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Patrick Semansky/AP

Politicians Push Back at Military Sexual Assault Panel Held This Week

At the Pentagon’s meeting about sexual assault in the armed forces, the military took fire for its handling of cases and for withholding data on the problem reports Hanqing Chen.

The problem of sexual assault in the armed forces has prompted congressional investigations and pledges of reform from the Pentagon but the military has often been a less than cooperative partner in the process and so far little has changed.

At a public meeting held this week in Washington DC by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to discuss reform proposals, it was revealed that the DOD’s own recommendations on a key issue involving sexual assault trials won’t be released until after a Senate vote on the matter has already been held.

Even the scope of the problem remains unclear. An anonymous survey of military personnel recently revealed that 26,000 service members reported being victims of sexual assault in 2012 while the Pentagon counted only an estimated 3,374 cases within the same period. The discrepancy, which some have ascribed to the military’s withholding of information, has resurrected calls from members of Congress and advocacy groups for more transparency in the Pentagon’s handling of the issue.

Leading this weeks meeting along with Secretary Hagel, was the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, a body established by The Defense Department as part of the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.

The 9-person panel is charged with investigating the military’s shortcomings in prosecuting perpetrators and providing aid to the victims of sexual assaults. The panel includes judges, academics, and former commanding officers in the U.S. military. Additionally, a number of international military leaders from Australia, Canada, and Israel were invited to lend their perspective.

Debate at the panel’s two day meeting revolved around the role of military commanders in overseeing the court martial process for sexual assault trials.

In August, the military announced new regulations enhancing the role of commanders in supervising the court martial process, a move that was welcomed by some as a step in the right direction but for others didn’t go far enough.

Senators Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Calire Mcllaskin of Missouri, who have both written bills that restrict the role of unit commanders in adjudicating sexual assault cases, appeared before the panel.

“There is no accountability because the trust that any justice will be served has been irreparably broken under the current system where commanders hold all the cards over whether a case moves forward for prosecution,” Gillibrand said.  Gillibrand’s bill, due to be voted on in Senate later this year, would shift the authority from commanders to military prosecutors.

The counter-argument made by some legal observers and military leaders, that commanders need to be even more involved in sexual assault cases, is based on the idea that marginalizing the military leadership or removing them altogether risks decreasing the level of accountability in the process.

According to Christopher Behan, Associate Professor of Law at Southern Illinois University School of Law: “Commanders feel a diminished sense of responsibility because a distant set of judge advocates somewhere else is in charge of these things.”

On Wednesday, the panel’s second day, military leaders were given an opportunity to voice their perspective.

“We believe that making drastic changes that remove the commander from that position will have a detrimental effect on the discipline of the service without providing the corollary benefit of more prosecutions,” said Fredrick J. Kenny, Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Coast Guard in a statement. Kenny argued that, while cultural changes in the military are necessary, he does not believe that diminishing the commander’s role will improve the process.

The panels next meeting will take place on November 9, and will focus on the victim’s perspective.

“We want to see the flip side of the coin,” said Terri Founders, Deputy Communications Director for the Response Panel. According to Founders, a number of victims support groups such as Service Women’s Action Network, have been invited to speak before the upcoming panel.

The Service Women’s Action Network has also challenged the military’s lack of reporting on incidences of sexual violence. The group filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit to obtain the military’s records showing the total number of non-judicial punishments, a punitive action less severe than court martial, to determine how many have been meted out in cases of sexual misconduct. The lawsuit is currently in a federal appeals court.

In Washington this week Secretary Hagel also announced the appointment of three subcommittees, two that will assess the issue of sexual assault reporting from the military and victim perspective and a third dedicated to comparing civilian to military judicial systems. The members of these committees have yet to be determined.

But in spite of the new panels being convened and the talk of future action, the results of this weeks meeting appear unlikely to affect any legislative change. The Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel, which led this weeks proceedings, revealed that it will not issue its formal recommendations in time to impact the Senate vote on military sexual assault proceedings, scheduled for late 2013.

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