The push to strip commanders of their authority to prosecute sexual assault cases got a boost from an official Pentagon advisory group that is calling on military leaders to support the proposed law.
The Defense Advisory Committee on Women in the Services, known as DACOWITS, voted on Friday to support the controversial bill that is gaining steam, albeit slowly, on Capitol Hill.
The measure would remove from the chain of command the authority to investigate and prosecute sexual assault cases, along with many other serious crimes, and hand that over to an independent office of high-ranking military lawyers.
“To ensure the strong military justice system that is essential to preventing sexual assault and other serious crimes, DoD should support legislation to remove these decisions from the chain of command and make decision-making in the military justice system more independent and impartial,” the panel recommended last week.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and most of the Pentagon’s top brass oppose the measure, saying it could undermine commanders’ authority, threaten good order and discipline in the ranks and limit commanders’ ability to crack down on sexual assault.
The panel’s move was applauded by the bill’s supporters on Capitol Hill.
“I’m heartened that a critical Department of Defense advisory committee has listened to the voices of sexual assault survivors,” Senator Barbara Boxer, a Democrat from California, said in a prepared statement.
“Now, Secretary Hagel should listen to his own advisory committee and immediately back the Gillibrand-Boxer proposal to remove decisions about sexual assault prosecutions from the chain of command,” Boxer said.
The bill was proposed in May amid heightened concerned about military sexual assault. An internal Pentagon report earlier this year suggests that about 26,000 troops each year experience “unwanted sexual contact” but only about 3,000 are reported as sexual assaults to the victims’ chain of command under the current rules.
The measure now has the support of at least 39 senators, including endorsements from Republican Rand Paul of Kentucky and Democrat Ed Markey of Massachusetts. But for now, the bill does not appear to have the 51 votes that it would need to pass.
The DACOWITS, an independent panel appointed by the Defense secretary, was established in the 1950s to advise the Pentagon about policy issues related to the recruitment and retention of women.