WASHINGTON -- The nation's top military leaders on Tuesday rejected a proposal by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand to remove the decision on whether and how to try service members accused of sexual assault from their commanders to independent military prosecutors.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and 15 other military leaders told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on the rising incidence of military sexual misconduct and assault that the problem must be handled within the chain of command.
"As we consider further reforms, the role of the commanders should remain central," Dempsey said. "Our goal should be to hold commanders more accountable, not render them less able to help us correct the crisis."
But Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) said a track separate from the commanders is needed because many victims of sexual assaults and harassment do not report the incidents out of fear of retaliation or an end to their careers.
"My concern is this: You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases. They are afraid to report," Gillibrand told the military leaders. "That is our biggest challenge right there," she said.
She said commanders are key in creating a good climate in their divisions, but not all can handle sexual crimes.
"Not all commanders are objective. Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force," Gillibrand said. "Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merged all these crimes together."
Military surveys found 26,000 cases of sexual harassment or assaults last year, up from 19,000 in 2010. They said 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men have experienced unwanted sexual conduct, which includes everything from touching to rape.
Gillibrand's measure is one of seven bills the committee considered Tuesday, but her bill to overhaul the long-standing system of military justice drew the most attention from witnesses.
Commanders can decide who gets prosecuted for what crimes, whether a court-martial will be held and the severity of discipline or punishment -- and can even set aside the findings of a court-martial.
Gillibrand's bill would give military prosecutors the authority to decide whether to try cases involving sexual assault and other crimes that carry penalties of a year or more in military custody.
Dempsey and the other military leaders blamed sexual misconduct on a failure of leadership or focus rather than a defective military justice system, and several testified about the importance of the broad powers of commanders.
Gen. Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the U.S. Army, said commanders were able to deal with racial integration and the repeal of "Don't ask, don't tell" for gays and lesbians in the military. "Sexual assault and sexual harassment are no different," Odierno said. "We can and will do better."
Gillibrand's bill has 21 sponsors, including four Republicans. But she acknowledged she faces an uphill battle: Even the committee chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), opposes it.
Yet, she said, there is an urgency for the victims and the current system doesn't work.
From 2011 to 2012, reports of sexual misconduct in the military dropped from 13 percent to 10 percent of the estimated number of cases of unwanted sexual conduct, Gillibrand said. Of those who reported incidents, 62 percent said they faced retaliation.