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The Last Word
updated 5/10/2013 12:47:03 AM ET 2013-05-10T04:47:03

The number of sex crimes in the military skyrocketed in recent years. Now, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand plans to introduce legislation next week to change the way the military handles these allegations.

The White House and lawmakers took steps Thursday to address the staggering rise of sexual assaults in the military following a chilling Pentagon report released earlier in the week.

Obama senior adviser Valerie Jarrett and Michelle Obama’s chief of staff, Tina Tchen, led a meeting at the White House on the matter with a dozen bipartisan members of Congress in attendance.

On Tuesday, a report from the Defense Department estimated 26,000 sexual assaults in the military happened in the 2012 fiscal year alone, ranging from rape to unwanted sexual contact. Out of that number, fewer than 3,400 incidents were reported.

To help combat the issue, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Chairwoman of the Armed Services Subcommittee on Personnel, plans to introduce legislation next week to change the way the military handles allegations of sex crimes.

“There’s a huge gap between how many incidents there are and how many people have the courage and ability and feel that they will be taken seriously and not be marginalized or retaliated against,” Gillibrand told MSNBC’s Lawrence O’Donnell during an exclusive interview on Thursday. “So we need to increase the reporting and that’s what we’re trying to do; we’re trying to write a bill that will change how men and women who are assaulted report these crimes so they feel that justice could be done.”

She proposed making it “more parallel to the civilian system.” Right now, senior commanders with zero legal training have the power to decide whether an offender should be prosecuted, to what extent, and what happens post-trial.

Gillibrand blamed part of the problem on major conflicts of interest within the chain of command, saying victims don’t feel comfortable speaking out under current conditions. “They don’t feel that there is an atmosphere by which they can report safely,” she said at Tuesday’s Senate Armed Services Committee hearing. “They’re afraid of retaliation. They’re afraid of being treated poorly by their commanders, being treated poorly by their colleagues.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel admitted “we know we’ve got big problems” during a press conference on Tuesday. But he remained a hold-out on keeping these investigations within the military chain of command. “We do have to go back and review every aspect of that chain of command, of that accountability, and some things do need to be changed,” Hagel said. “But I don’t think taking it away, the responsibility–ultimate responsibility–away from the military, I think that would just weaken the system.”

On Thursday, the man who had led the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention and response unit, Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, was arraigned on a misdemeanor sexual battery charge. He’s accused of groping a woman in a parking lot in Virginia just two days before the Pentagon report was released.

President Obama said he has “no tolerance” for this kind of behavior in the military and called for immediate reform. “If it is happening inside our military, then whoever carries it out is betraying the uniform that they’re wearing,” Obama said on Tuesday following news of the report. “For those who are in uniform who have experienced sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I’ve got their backs. I will support them.”

Video: Sen. Gillibrand on fighting rise of sexual assualts in military

  1. Closed captioning of: Sen. Gillibrand on fighting rise of sexual assualts in military

    >>> and understanding of what sexual assault is. and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline.

    >> joining me now, senator kirsten gillibrand . this story has mushroomed over time . starting with both of us seeing that amazing documentary, "the invisible war " that really opened my eyes to this issue. you're in the armed services committee , studying it, and it's come to this point where we found this week colonel jeffrey krusinski in charge of the air force 's control of sexual assault cases ends up charged with it himself. hence the frustration you exited this week, greater frustration than before.

    >> it's a huge problem. one of the reasons why requesti"the invisible war " was so effective, real victims telling their stories ask. that's why as chair with homan, my first hearing on sexual assault and rape in the military and i had the victims testify first to tell their stories. and that's why we have to address the issue. we have 26,000 cases last year arguably. and of them, only 3,000 or so reported. so there's a huge gap between how many incidents there are and how many people have the courage and ability and feel that they will be taken seriously and not be marginalized or retaliated against. and so we need to increase the reporting. and that's what we're trying to do. we're trying to write a bill that will change how men, women who are assaulted report these crimes. so they feel that justice could be done. and so we're going to -- our bill is going to remove that from the chain of command and have them report directly to a trained prosecutor who knows these issues. and knows how to investigate the cases and prosecute the crimes.

    >> so this will be -- a separate entity within the military system of justice.

    >> just within the corps. we have trained prosecutors now.

    >> and this is something we have out there in local governments and in county prosecutors' offices. they have sexual assault treated specially.

    >> it would be more parallel to the civilian system . right now, the way it is in the military, if you were raped or assaulted, you have to report to your boss or your boss's boss. and you can imagine a victim saying i don't want to do that. because my boss may know the person who assaulted or raped me. he may think that i'm the troublemaker. he may retaliate against me because it's going to reflect badly on him. too many issues at stake. it should be somebody independent, outside of the chain of command who is specifically trained to understand these issues. let them do the investigation, let them make the judgment of whether this should go to trial. i think in that instance, more men and women will feel comfortable reporting. you'll have a better reporting rate. and justice will be done in more cases.

    >> especially as you have heard in many -- well, many. some number of cases. the person who has done the assault is the commandingst r officer. the person you're supposed to report to. so how can that possibly work?

    >> one of the things we did in the last armed services authorization bill is move it up one more level so it would be less likely the perpetrator would be your commanding officer. but still, what the victims tell us, and what was revealed in the invisible war and what came through in the hearings, was that the fear of retail as ation is so real, the last report the public of defense published, it says 62% of those who had experienced unwanted sexual contact believed that if they reported, they would be retaliated against.

    >> isn't there also just a big kind of institutional brewer accuratic, i don't want this on my watch. if i'm the commanding officer, do i want the to be the commanding officer? with the largest number of sexual assaults reported? don't i have some kind of incentive to keep that number down to suppress this, to talk people out of filing those complaints?

    >> that's the concern. and so if you have -- if you have been assaulted or raped, you may have that fear you will be perceived as a troublemaker. in fact, when we had the hearing and one of the victims testified, she said i reported immediately. she said, but then i was so marginalized, i was shunned, i was treated poorly by my commanding officer, by other people in my unit. she said my career was over. so when i reported, that was the beginning of the he said of my career, because i couldn't serve anymore under those circumstances. so we hear time and time again from victims that they are marginized or retaliated against or they feel that their future in the military is at risk by reporting. so we believe, and many senators are working on this bill now, that if we allow them to report outside the chain of command , allow that decisionmaking to be made by a prosecutor, not the commanding officer, you will see justin done more often and you will see more confidence within the system that justice is possible for them.

    >> and it seems like nothing less than the future of a volunteer military is at stake. these numbers are wild, out of control epidemic proportions. and in "the invisible war " you see a father of a daughter who gets assaulted in the military, and you can see that these people are not going to continue to send their daughters and their sons who are also abused into this military.

    >> and lawrence, just so our viewers know, more than half of the assaults and rapes are against men. more than half.

    >> yes.

    >> and you can imagine a male soldier never wanting to report that happens to them. and you can imagine all of the reasons why. so we have to do better by the men and women serving. and assure them that they will be serving and not be attacked by their colleagues, and not be subject to this kind of treatment. we have the best and the brightest serving in our military. we have the greatest military in the world. and we ask everything of them, to even die for their country. we should not be asking them to be subject to sexual assault and rape.

    >> it has been fascinating to watch this subject mushroom over time , get bigger and bigger. it felt at certain moments like, okay, that's maybe the end of it. but -- and by the way, i certainly have the feeling that -- tell me if this is true. that without women like you on the armed services committee , this would not be the issue it is now in the united states senate .

    >> well, i agree with you. a number of the men and women on the armed services committee , claire mccaskill , dick blumenthal, everyone is focused very intently on this issue now. and as the chairman of the committee, i held the first hearing in ten years on this issue. that's too long. this is nothing new. this has been going on for a very long time. but i think the advocacy brought to bear through the " invisible war " really matters because they put a face on the victims and told their stories. we're hoping other victims will feel more comfortable to tell their stories, whether they report it or not and why they didn't report if they didn't. another disturbing thing. when we had the hearings a couple days ago and the secretary of the air force testified along with the chief of staff, i was very disturbed that the chief of staff said that part of the reason why you have such a high incident rate is a holdover from the hook-up culture of high school . this has nothing to do with a date that has gone badly. what we are worried about are predators. predators within the military who are often resid visits who will not only target but stalk their victims and wait until they have easy access or can control the situation. we have stories from victims saying that after they are raped, they were then blackmailed and said if you reveal this happened to you, i will kill you. i mean, that is the nature of these crimes. they are violent crimes committed by perpetrators who should not be serving in our military.

    >> senator gillibrand, the military is lucky to have you fighting for their safety on their own bases, which is the ignored subject up until now, thanks to you. senator gillibrand,

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