Top US commanders are likely to face tough questioning Tuesday from impatient senators who want an overhaul of the military justice system to stem an epidemic of sexual assaults in the ranks.
The chiefs of all the armed services and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, will make an unusual joint appearance before the Senate Armed Services Committee to testify on the sexual assault crisis.
A rise in rapes and sexual assaults — along with a spate of high-profile cases in recent weeks — has put military leaders on the defensive, with the top brass vowing to stamp out the problem while cautioning against major revisions to its legal traditions.
Numerous proposals are circulating in Congress to address the issue, with some lawmakers backing bills to strip commanders of the authority to refer sexual assault cases for trial, alter sentences or overturn verdicts.
However, Dempsey, the military’s top-ranking officer, has warned against legislation that would totally cut out commanders from the justice system.
Restricting a commander too severely would undermine an officer’s ability to ensure discipline in their unit, the four-star general wrote to the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who has called the sexual assault problem a “scourge,” has suggested amending the military’s legal code to prohibit commanders from tossing out verdicts after a trial.
Although Hagel initially said he opposed more radical proposals for scaling back a commander’s authority, the Pentagon chief has since said he is open to discussing all options with lawmakers.
At a hearing last month, Senator Kirstin Gillibrand of New York slammed Air Force leaders over the issue and said the current system was broken, as too many rape victims were afraid to come forward.
Trained prosecutors and specialists should be handling the cases exclusively, without commanders able to weigh in before or after a trial, she said.
A wave of embarrassing revelations and accusations has fueled calls for urgent action.
An Air Force general earlier this year tossed out a guilty verdict against an officer who was convicted of sexual assault in a trial, and has subsequently defended the move.
The head of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention and response program was arrested for sexual battery near the Pentagon last month.
An Army officer working in sexual assault prevention was accused of allegedly forcing a subordinate into prostitution.
A sergeant at the West Point military academy faces allegations he secretly filmed female cadets without their consent, sometimes when they were in the shower.
And at the US naval academy in Annapolis, Maryland, three football players are under investigation over allegations they raped a female midshipman.