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Sen. McCaskill: No 'coddling' Pentagon on sexual assaults

WASHINGTON • Congress is on the verge of forcing the Pentagon to deal forcefully with sexual misconduct in the service branches, and the Defense Department may announce some changes as soon as this week.

But whether the military should go so far as to remove prosecutions form the chain of command remains a raging debate as Congress prepares to lock in provisions to a defense bill.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., argued this morning on NBC's "Meet the Press" that stripping commanders of key decisions about court martials would backfire.

"If the commander doesn't have any role, we're letting them off the hook. And we can not let these commanders off the hook; we have to hold them accountable," McCaskill said.

McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is a principal author of reforms protecting victims that were accepted by the committee before advancing the legislation to the floor.

For instance, a decision by a commander not to pursue charges in an assault case would be reviewed at the highest levels in the service branches.

But a rival plan of Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., gathering momentum would put decisions on court martials in the hands of prosecutors rather than commanders in an effort to stem retaliation against victims.

McCaskill, a former prosecutor, contended this morning that outside lawyers "get way too focused on the won-loss record and not about getting to the bottom of it."

"These are tough cases," she said.

McCaskill said that despite the outcome of the present dispute, she and the six other women on the Armed Services Committee are committed to changes in a military culture that reported an estimated 26,000 cases of "unwanted sexual conduct" last year.

"We are working together and believe me, none of us are coddling the Pentagon on this issue. And we're not going away," she said.

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