Gillibrand: Reform military sex assault prosecution

Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand Senate Armed Services Committee member Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand asks a question of a witness on Capitol Hill in Washington. (June 4, 2013) Photo Credit: AP

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WASHINGTON -- Despite a major setback, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand says she is continuing her campaign to change the way the U.S. Armed Forces handle sexual assaults, seeking support in one-on-one chats on the Senate floor and in telephone calls to colleagues.

Gillibrand's measure to fundamentally alter the military justice system by taking prosecution of those cases out of the chain of command was rejected 17-9 in the Senate Armed Forces Committee on June 12.

Undeterred, Gillibrand since then has recruited five more co-sponsors, for a total of 33, to help pass an amendment needing 51 votes that she plans to offer to the defense bill in the full Senate later this year.

"The more you press the issue, the more allies are revealed," Gillibrand said in an interview, reciting a key lesson from her four years as senator.

As Gillibrand embarks on her first six-year term as New York's junior Democratic senator, her push on the sexual assault issue shows she's taking bolder steps and raising her profile even if she has to take on powerful colleagues.

This year so far she has sponsored a bill to crack down on gun trafficking and clashed with a senior Democrat over cuts to food stamps. But it's been what allies call her shrewd and timely campaign against sexual violence among service members -- a cause she took up only in January -- that's gotten her the most attention.

Challenging history

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Among the measures offered to address the issue, Gillibrand took the one that is most dramatic and most opposed by the defense establishment, including Armed Services Committee chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.).

She proposed to upend more than 200 years of military history by removing the power to decide on prosecutions of sexual assault from military commanders and giving it to independent military prosecutors.

"Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape," she told top military brass at a Senate hearing on June 4.

"It's been amazing to watch her, because a year ago you couldn't say that she was taking a lead on this," said Anu Bhagwati of the Service Women's Action Network, an advocacy group for military women.

"Right now, I mean today, she is the leading voice for change in the Senate, in all of Congress for that matter, in terms of prioritizing military justice reform," Bhagwati said.

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Gillibrand faces surprisingly little political risk for her stand.

Eighty percent of Americans see rape and sexual attacks among service members as an important issue, a Washington Post-Pew Research Center poll found, even though they are split on whether to give authority to commanders or military lawyers.

Spokesman Joe Davis of Veterans of Foreign Wars, which opposes Gillibrand's bill, said he didn't expect Gillibrand to suffer politically for her stance.

"I don't see a political blowback," he said. "If you look at the emotion of her behind this, you know she cares."

Survey: Sex assaults upThe problem of sexual misconduct in the military has been around for decades but may be getting worse: Defense Department surveys estimate incidents of unwanted sexual contact grew to 26,000 last year from 19,000 in 2010.

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Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Rep. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and others have been working on the issue for years.

Gillibrand said she took on the issue after seeing "The Invisible War," a 2012 documentary about rape in the military.

"I was so offended and angry when I heard these stories," she said. So she used her new post as chairwoman of the Armed Services subcommittee on personnel to hold a widely covered hearing that featured victims of military sexual attacks.

Levin responded with a full committee hearing that took testimony from 16 top military leaders opposed to her bill, and led the committee in killing her measure.

Gillibrand said she's hopeful she can gather support to pass her amendment to the defense bill when it comes to the Senate floor, most likely in the fall.

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She said she is working with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) so her amendment will get a vote. Reid has said he has not studied her bill, but would look at it favorably.

Gillibrand's co-sponsors include Democrats such as Sen. Charles Schumer of New York and Republicans such as Sen. Charles Grassley of Iowa. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) voted for her bill in committee.

"I know her, and I know that she won't be deterred, but will keep fighting for her legislation to become law," Schumer said.

Norman Ornstein, a congressional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank here, said Gillibrand wins no matter what happens.

The Senate and House are on track to pass measures aimed at helping to curb sexual misconduct.

"She has helped to make this a visible issue," he said. "She has pushed before anybody else and with more clarity than anybody else to change the system and hold the miscreants accountable."

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