NORMAN — It would be easy enough to fixate on the strange-bedfellow politics — Harry Reid and Ted Cruz on the same side — and lose track of the substantive argument.
In short, it’s this: If the U.S. military’s system for rooting out sexual assault in the ranks and prosecuting the accused were working, we wouldn’t need to find a better way.
It’s not, and we do. One bit of evidence is from a report released in the spring revealing that incidents of sexual assault in the military continue to increase at alarming rates, reaching an estimated 26,000 last year. Of that number, only about 3,000 led to a formal complaint.
Before you ask, the question isn’t whether the U.S. has the world’s best-trained and best-equipped military, with a proud tradition of dedicated service and remarkable achievement. This is not in doubt.
The questions are whether that military, on its own, has done enough to stem the rising sexual assault numbers and whether prosecutors, rather than commanders, should decide which cases to pursue. Given the evidence, made worse by some high-profile cases involving officers who should know better, the logical answer comes from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.
Her measure, an amendment to a defense bill, would shift the power from rank-and-file commanders to prosecutors, military lawyers trained to evaluate and handle sexual assault cases. This independent military justice system is what Reid, the Senate majority leader, announced he was supporting this week. Months earlier, two prominent conservative Republicans, Cruz and Kentucky’s Rand Paul, lent their support to Gillibrand, one of the Senate’s more liberal Democrats.
Gillibrand’s effort, in fact, has split both party caucuses. She claims 50 on-the-record supporters, with others privately backing her, but concedes she’s still short of the 60 she would need to avert a filibuster.
Opposing her are Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill and several senators traditionally viewed as military establishment backers. McCaskill and Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the powerful Armed Services Committee, offer a compromise that would strip commanders of their ability to overturn jury verdicts and order dishonorable discharge or dismissal for anyone convicted of sexual assault.
Intense lobbying from the Pentagon backs the McCaskill-Levin effort. It remains to be seen how influential Reid’s support for Gillibrand’s proposal will be.
The bottom line for this newspaper: The U.S. military has a sexual assault problem, and potential victims — mostly women but some men — must believe that their coming forward will receive the serious, impartial attention it deserves. Half measures and promises to study the matter no longer suffice.
Sexual assault is an allegation not to be taken lightly. In many cases, complainants put their careers, or more, on the line. They deserve nothing less than even-handed treatment, and that’s what the Gillibrand proposal provides.
— The Dallas
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