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Military leaders want to keep authority over sex assault cases

Military leaders Tuesday vowed to crack down on an epidemic of sexual assault in the military. But they said they were unwilling to take sex assault cases out of the military chain of command.

As lawmakers try to determine the best way to tackle sexual assault in the military, two major schools of thought are emerging. On one end: Rep. Mike Turner, R-Dayton, who would place responsibility for individual cases at the highest ranks of military leadership and make it more difficult for military officials to change or dismiss a court martial conviction.

On the other: Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who would take sexual assault cases out of the military chain of command and put decisions in the hands of military judges and juries.

Of the two alternatives, military leaders, who testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee, are more resistant to the latter proposal, saying it’s vital that the commander be involved in order to effectively address the issue of sexual assault.

“If I honestly believed pulling the commander off the convening authority or the disposition authority would fix it, then, sir, I’d raise my hand and vote for it today,” said Marine Commandant Gen. James F. Amos.

The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2012, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel.

While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.

There are other differences in the bills sponsored by Turner and Gillibrand.

Turner’s would establish minimum sentences for those convicted, with those convicted either dismissed or given a dishonorable discharge from the military. Gillibrand’s bill does not include provisions on minimum sentences. But both bills would make it more difficult for military officials to change a conviction.

Gillibrand’s bill is co-sponsored by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., among others. Turner’s bill is co-sponsored by Rep. Niki Tsongas, D-Mass., and Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo.

Turner, through a spokesman, said he was reluctant to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command.

“Taking it out of the chain of command would significantly alter the authority of commanders we trust to keep the discipline of our armed forces,” said Tom Crosson, a Turner spokesman. “This would undermine their ability to lead.”

Gillibrand said at the hearing that changes proposed in her bill mirror policies employed by U.S. allies including Israel, Australia and Germany. “This has been done before by our allies to great effect,” she said.

But others, including Senate Armed Services Committee Ranking Member Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., are resistant to taking the issue out of the chain of command, which, he said, would “invite failure.”

Inhofe said a Defense bill that became law last year included 10 provisions on sexual assault in the military and many are still being implemented. Service leaders, meanwhile, said they believed they had strong tools to deal with the problem, but acknowledged that they haven’t prioritized the issue until recently.

Amos acknowledged that his service “failed on this in the past. It has not been a top priority in the years past, the decades past … but it is now.”

But he and other service leaders were reluctant to alter the chain of command.

“We believe that the role of the commander is essential to any change – any positive change – we will be able to make on this issue,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Martin Dempsey told the committee.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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