Letters to the Editor

Assault investigations should be independent

Sen. Murray’s bill on sexual assault in the military comes up short.

It looked like row upon row of military medals when the Joint Chiefs of Staff and high-ranking representatives from all the military services appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee on June 4 to talk about proposed solutions to the sexual assault crisis in the military. While there are a number of proposed solutions under consideration, competing bills by Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., offer two different approaches.

Sen. Gillibrand’s bill takes the decision to prosecute serious criminal matters out of the hands of the chain of command and places it with independent, trained military prosecutors. Murray’s bill allows the matter to stay within the chain unless there is a “conflict of interest.” There’s the rub.

There is always a conflict of interest within the chain of command or, at least, the appearance of a conflict of interest. Any sexual assault allegation can potentially reflect negatively on the commander’s skill and efficiency — even when the commander is vigorous in fighting sexual misconduct.

On a number of occasions, it has been the chain of command that stifles the filing of criminal complaints. Commanders can now overrule a military prosecutor on whether to refer a case to court martial. Alleged victims are simply reluctant to go through the chain of command for what are obvious reasons. Even the most ethical military commanders are not trained criminal investigators or prosecutors. Particular expertise in neutrally evaluating cases for court martial is absolutely necessary.

The reasons cited by those who would like to see these decisions remain in the chain of command have to do with unit cohesion. But this is a straw argument. “Unit cohesion” was hoisted to resist racial integration, women and gays in the military.

Throughout many other professions, serious criminal misconduct matters are routinely and successfully dealt with “outside the chain of command.” Of course, minor misconduct matters (AWOL, minor insubordination) should be handled internally by commanders and Gillibrand’s bill provides for that.The military chain of command has had years to deal with the epidemic of sexual assault. They have failed. Sen. Murray has always touted herself as a friend of the military, but she is too close to the brass on this one.

Each of the military services has introduced plans to take steps to address the issue. There will be training, victim advocates and more “evaluations.” But increased “evaluation” provides more motivation for a commander to discourage the filing of a complaint or make the whole complaint go away.

Bernadette Foley



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