Gillibrand’s quest

Senators and tea party favorites Rand Paul, R-Ky., and Ted Cruz, R-Texas, have joined the effort led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to reform the military justice system in response to the ongoing problem of sexual assault in the armed forces. It matters little whether this reflects a newfound sense of bipartisan cooperation or simply the fact that people on the left and the right have daughters and sisters. Reform is needed and overdue.

A Pentagon report said sexual assaults were up 6 percent in fiscal year 2012 and estimated the number of victims could be as high as 26,000. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has said the incidence of sexual assault threatens to undermine the military’s ability to carry out its missions.

Gillibrand has more than 30 co-sponsors for her bill and is aiming for 51 votes. She may well make it, and our hope is that Colorado Sens. Mark Udall and Michael Bennet would be among them.

At issue is Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which gives the “convening authority” – the commanding officer who first decided to bring charges – the power to change all or part of the decision handed down by a court martial, alter the sentence, reduce the charge or even overturn the verdict. Gillibrand’s bill comes in part as a response to an episode in February in which Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson, who had been convicted of aggravated sexual assault of a civilian. Under Article 60, the commanding officer need not give a reason, and the decision is final.

That power was first given to U.S. commanders in 1775 in keeping with what had been British practice. It was incorporated into the Uniform Code of Military Justice when it was adopted in 1950.

Gillibrand’s bill would take sexual-assault cases out of that chain of command. She and her supporters maintain that is the only way to end the plague of sexual assaults in the military.

The military brass are united in opposing any such change. In June, every member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff went to Capitol Hill to testify against it. Their expressed concern is that removing commanding officers from sexual assault cases would threaten unit cohesion and undermine the chain of command.

But this is not the 18th century, and real-time communication is possible anywhere on Earth. Allowing one individual to supplant judge and jury is unnecessary and unwarranted.

In any case, “a threat to unit cohesion” is a perennial bugaboo, the first objection to any kind of change to the military’s way of doing things. It was the response to allowing gays to serve, to women in the military and probably was invoked when someone first suggested doing away with the cavalry. The military does not like change and never has.

As to the chain of command, of course top commanders don’t want to relinquish any authority. That is one of the reasons they made it to the top. No one gets to be a general who does not want to be in control.

But perhaps that fear of losing control is exactly what is needed. Regardless of whether her own effort succeeds, Gillibrand’s push – and the backing of such disparate senators as Paul, Cruz and California Democrat Barbara Boxer – sends a strong message to the military that when it comes to sexual assault, business as usual is not going be tolerated.

As a former Marine Corps general told Politico, no matter what happens now, “If the problem doesn’t go away, then Gillibrand’s approach is going to be law in a matter of years.”

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