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Morning Joe
updated 6/4/2013 11:16:52 AM ET 2013-06-04T15:16:52

"If we expect to have military readiness, if we expect our force to be ready for anything, we can not have men and women being attacked by their colleagues and their commanders," New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said the morning of the congressional hearing that could radically affect the military's epidemic of sexual assault.

Leading up to Congress’ first full hearing on military sexual assault in 10 years, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand renewed her demands for objectivity and accountability in the military’s prosecution of harassment.

The military needs to “create a system that has more transparency, more accountability and basic objectivity,” the New York Democrat said on Tuesday’s Morning Joe. “We have to make sure these perpetrators, these predators are taken out of our military.”

Military estimates of sexual assaults skyrocketed last year from 19,000 to 26,000, but just over 3,300 were reported to military authorities. Of those reported, even fewer resulted in convictions. Under military chain of command, the accused’s commander decides whether to send an accusation and case to trial and whether to approve or overturn a conviction.

“When a commander at the end of the day can unwind what an investigation has put forward or unwind what a jury has actually found, victims do not believe they can have any accountability or justice in the current system,” Gillibrand said.

Reporting is also a huge problem, because victims are “afraid to report because they’re concerned they’ll be retaliated against, or marginalized, or blamed,” Gillibrand said. “They don’t feel there is a system where they can get justice.”

Top military commanders want to keep the command chain as it is, Gillibrand said.

“That’s wrong, anything less will not result in a transparent, fair system where victims feel comfortable,” she said.

Gillibrand, who serves on the Armed Services Committee, introduced a bill to rework the Uniform Code of Military Justice as it pertains to serious crimes and sexual assault, by creating an justice process that removes those key decisions from commanders. Top military leaders are expected to address Gillibrand’s bill during a hearing on Capitol Hill Tuesday.

Sec. of Defense Chuck Hagel and other top military commanders have opposed reworking the Uniform Code of Military Justice, saying it threatens force unity and obedience, but Hagel does agree that commanders should not have the ability to overturn jury convictions of rapists.

Allies who have implemented similar efforts have seen success, Gillibrand said. Israel’s military courts made changes to their system, she said, and “when they started having high prosecutions, their reporting went up 80%.”

Improving prosecutions will improve reporting which will in turn, eventually, curb the epidemic as a whole, Gillibrand said.

“When people see results, you’ll start to transform the culture of not only academies, but the military itself. That is necessary. If we expect to have military readiness, if we expect our force to be ready for anything, we can not have men and women being attacked by their colleagues and their commanders.”

Video: As sexual assaults increase, the military enters the spotlight

  1. Closed captioning of: As sexual assaults increase, the military enters the spotlight

    >>> if the man in charge for the air force in preventing sexual assault is being alleged to have committed a sexual assault this weekend, obviously there's a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging is to good order and discipline, and how it is undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world.

    >> that was senator kirsten gillibrand in a heated confrontation with officials last month.

    >>> first joining us from the pentagon, chief pentagon correspondent jim miklaszewski . today the military is expected to address the increase of sexual assaults . you have just one example of how bad this situation is.

    >> reporter: that's right, mika, all the military top brass, including the general chief are marching up to capitol hill where they're expected to get a tough grilling from lawmakers on the rising number of sexual assault cases in the military and what needs to be done about it. this on top of the latest reported sex scandal out of the elite naval academy , which involved a highly volatile combination of sex, alcohol, and football. maybe football is the crown jewel of the naval academy sports program, but defense officials confirm three navy football players are under investigation for allegedly assaulting an unconscious female midshipman last year. the attorney claims when her client reported the incident she was disciplined for drinking, but the two football players went unpunished and allowed to play out the season.

    >> the message is she was getting in trouble for coming forward, yet nothing was happening to the men involved in the wrongdoing.

    >> reporter: the alleged incident occurred as sexual assault rose to record highs. the pentagon estimates that sexual assaults skyrocketed last year, from 19 to 26,000. that includes two recent incidents involving military members entrusted with protecting victims against sexual abuse . one has been charged with sexual battery . pressure is now growing in congress to change the military culture that often protects the accused by changing the way the military justice system pursuing and prosecutes sexual assault cases.

    >> they have to be treated lie the climbs they are, crimes of violence, aggression and dominance.

    >> at this year's commencement, president obama told these graduates sexual assault poses a serious threat to the entire military.

    >> that's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they've got no place in the greatest military on earth.

    >> reporter: one senior was migging, not allowed to graduate pending an investigation.

    >> so let's bring in democratic senator from new york and chair of the subcommittee on personnel, senator kirsten gillibrand . they're talking about this being a primary mission. what kind of follow-through would you like to see from the chiefs today?

    >> well, we would like a system that has more transparency, more accountability, and basic objectivity. what we have today is not that. that is what victims have told us. they said they're afraid to report, because they're concerned they'll be retaliated against or marginalized or actually blimd. they don't feel like there's a system where they can receive justice, because they feel the system is biased. we want them to report and have the decisionmaking be outside the chain of command . we want trained military prosecutors to make the judgment about whether or not to take a case to trial, not the victim's commander.

    >> so that seems like the only way to begin to solve this problem. do you think you'll get that?

    >> we're working very hard to get that. we have a bipartisan bill, nearly 20 senators already co-sponsoring it. the hearing today is important, the first hearing of the full committee in ten years to talk about this issue. what we expect from the military is they don't want to change anything. they want the status quo. in fact they have said they will not support taking this decisionmaking out of the chain of command . i think that is wrong. i think anything less will not result in a more transparent, fair system where victims feel comfortable. our biggest challenge is reporting. we have 26,000 arguable sexual attempts, sexual assaults and rapes a year, but we only have 33 reporting. you have that a tenth go to trial. you have that we have a handful of convictions, about 1 in 100.

    >> i don't disagree with your proposed solution. i'm not sure how they can do it within the chain of command . jim, you have a question?

    >> reporter: oh, you know, i think the senator is exactly right, that there is pushback from the military leadership, and even defense secretary leon panetta , he supported trying to find a way to support the victims of sexual assault in the military, but he too was not eager to change that chain of command influence inside the u.s. military . i can tell you that the chain of command to many in the military is sacrosanct, because you never want to have to order a soldier into battle and have him question the leadership. but we're talking about something entirely different here. many in the military understand there's going to have to be change, but they don't think it's going to happen quickly.

    >> kirsten?

    >> look, what we have seen from our commander, secretary panetta actually allowed women in combat and made that fundamental change. he has made statements along with his general counsel, saying there needs to be structural reform. i don't know that he wouldn't support this. i know that secretary hagel has already recommended changing the ucmj, the uniform code of military justice , by saying one of the responsibilities needs to be taken away from the chain of command , and that's the ability to overturn a verdict. commanders know this is a probable. general amos has said the reason why victims don't come forward is they don't trust us , they don't trust the chain of command to handle these cases proper l. wife also heard from general dempsey who says they think they've been too soft on the perpetrator perpetrators, that if someone is a decorated soldier, who has earned various awards and purple hearts , they may go soft on him, not prosecute the cases. what are the victims to think when even the commanders know they don't trust them. they don't trust them to have accountability and justice. so we care about military readiness, if we care about making sure we have good order and discipline, then we have to deal with these problems and we have to make sure these perpetrators, these predators are taking out so we can honor of service of the men and women who are part of the --

    >> lee gallagher.

    >> senator, i applaud your efforts. one of the issues that's come up is screening. reporters are saying that many of these people that are charged have prior history, so is that in your discussion at all? and would more screening do anything to help this problem?

    >> i think it would. i think there's a number of reforms that would make a difference. i think looking at the academies. this camp in the naval academy shows there's no accountability. so until you begin to punish criminals for crimes, rape, sexual assault , these are crimes of violence, and often these predators are resid viss. show there's accountable, though justice can be done. when more victims come forward, you'll have more trials, more convictions, and when people see results, you will begin to transform the culture of not only the academies, but the military itself. we expect military readiness and we expect to have our force be ready for anything. we cannot have men and women being attacked by their colleagues and commander.

    >> mike?

    >> as you know, each branch has separate divisions. airborne, infantry, ordnance, things like that. the police departments in this country are virtually military-style organizations. almost every major police department i know has a sexual crimes unit, run by detectives who investigate sexual crimes. does any branch of the military have such a separate section and specialization?

    >> reporter: i think they're just getting --

    >> go ahead, mick.

    >> okay. they're just getting geared up to focus on sexual assaults , but i can tell you i've talked to many victims who say once they report, they have no problem with the way military investigators handle their case, that they were very aggressive. in some cases they put wires on the victims who then go in and gather more evidence against their attacker, but what happens is when it gets up to the command, that's when it all seems to fall apart, because in that command structure -- and i've seen it myself. i'm sat in on sexual assault trials against military superiors accused of assaulting their subordinates, and in one case, the judge looked at the jury, military male judge looked at an all- military jury , and his instructions before they went in to consider any type of verdict were this. because of the this individual's rank, his years of service and his stellar record, the jury was instructed to give more credence to his testimony than the victims. if you're a victim, you've got to be sitting there and going, i wasted my time here. in that case, the accused was exonerated.

    >> unplefbl.

    >> there's also a reason why the commanders, when they overturn a jury verdict or a commander decides they're not going to permit a case to go forward to trial, it undermines anyone's confidence that there's a fob outcome for justice. that is really the challenge, that if the commander at the end of the day can unwind what an investigation has put forward or unwind what a jury has actually found, victims do not believe they can have accountability or justice in the current system. that's why the two decision points -- whether to go to trial or whether to overturn a jury verdict -- should be taken outside the chain of command . you need an objective legal system . that's what you're legal system is based on. just to complete this argument, many other of our allies have already done this. israel and the uk have done it, and what the israeli j.a.g. corps told us is when they started having high-level prosecutions, they're reporting over the last five years, went up by 80%. we want that get that 26,000 incidents, more reported at not just have 3,300.

    >> senator kirsten gillibrand , thank you.

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