WASHINGTON — Sen. Jim Inhofe stepped up his fight Friday against a proposal to remove U.S. military commanders from the process of determining how sexual assault cases are handled.
Inhofe, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, sent a letter to his GOP colleagues in the Senate seeking to counter what he called “misconceptions” about sexual assaults in the military. And he said lawmakers should wait for the recommendations from an independent panel before making changes to the military justice system.
Inhofe, of Tulsa, said in his letter that it would be “a grave mistake” to remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command and would provide no benefit to “those vulnerable victims who each of us want to support.”
In the wake of several controversies over sexual assault in the military — including a case in which the conviction of a pilot was overturned by a general — New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand has gathered bipartisan support for legislation that would give more authority to independent military prosecutors.
Gillibrand's office released a fact sheet this week that said her legislation “seeks to reverse the systemic fear that numerous victims of military sexual assault have told us they have in deciding whether to report the crimes committed against them due to the clear bias and inherent conflicts of interest posed by the military chain of command's current sole decision-making power.”
The senator's fact sheet cited a study showing that “25% of women and 27% of men who received unwanted sexual contact indicated the offender was someone in their military chain of command.”
Gillibrand, a Democrat, said she has 44 senators backing her bill; she needs 51.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is also opposing Gillibrand's bill.
The Pentagon released a survey in May that showed an estimated 26,000 service members experienced unwanted sexual contact in 2012 — up 35 percent from 2010. There were 3,374 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims or subjects, an increase from the 3,192 reports received in 2011, according to the Pentagon; the offenses ranged from abusive sexual contact to rape.
Inhofe said Friday that removing commanders from the process wouldn't encourage reporting by victims who now fear retaliation. Some 70 percent of women who experienced unwanted sexual contact didn't report it because they didn't want anyone to know, according to a 2012 survey, Inhofe said. Those same women would likely not report it under a new system either, he noted, because an open investigation would make the allegation known.
“That is why the services all have sexual assault victim advocates to help victims through the difficult process to bring a case to justice,” Inhofe said in his letter. “Commanders have an essential role in ensuring those victims get the help they need.”
Inhofe also said that victims don't currently have to report charges of unwanted sexual contact to the chain of command. And he sought to refute claims that U.S. allies saw increased sexual assault convictions after changing their military justice systems.
Inhofe said the 2013 defense bill, which has yet to be considered by the Senate, would establish an independent panel to examine sexual assault in the military