Levin floor statement on sexual assault prevention provisions of NDAA

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

WASHINGTON – Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, spoke today on the Senate floor on provisions of the National Defense Authorization Act for Fiscal Year 2014 that are designed to combat military sexual assault. Below is an unofficial transcript of his remarks:

“Mr. President, the bill reported by the committee includes groundbreaking new measures to reduce sexual assault and misconduct. On a bipartisan basis, members debated and approved more than two dozen measures related to preventing sexual assault and delivering justice for the victims of these crimes.

“The bill that we approved and which is now before us would provide every sexual assault victim a counsel – a lawyer who works not for commanders, prosecutors, defense attorneys or a court, but for the victim. It includes strong new protections for victims that are designed to combat the number one problem we have in preventing assaults and dealing with perpetrators: the fact that many assaults remain unreported to authorities. And of great importance, the committee-reported bill for the first time makes it a crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice to retaliate against a service member who reports a sexual assault. It also requires that the Department of Defense Inspector General review and investigate any allegation of retaliation against those who make communications regarding sexual assault or sexual misconduct.

“Our bill also includes important criminal justice system reforms, including reforms on how our commanders respond to sexual assaults. Our bill includes a requirement that commanders who become aware of a reported sexual assault immediately forward that information to criminal investigators. It eliminates the consideration of the accused’s character from the factors that a commander should weigh in deciding whether to prosecute a sexual assault allegation. It restricts the authority of commanders under Article 60 of the UCMJ to set aside court-martial verdicts in cases involving sexual assault and other crimes. It requires a decision by a commander that he will not prosecute a sexual assault complaint undergoes an automatic review by a higher command authority, in nearly all cases a general or flag officer. In cases where a commander’s decision not to prosecute contradicts the recommendation of his or her legal adviser, that automatic review is conducted by the service secretary. And the committee-reported bill makes clear that we expect and demand that commanders will use their authority to rein in this problem by fostering a climate of zero tolerance toward sexual misconduct, and one in which service members believe they can come forward to report cases of sexual assault.

“These important reforms were the work of almost every member of the Armed Services Committee. The desire to remove this stain from our military is bipartisan and it is strong.

“Now, Mr. President, perhaps the most basic reason to oppose an amendment of the Senator from New York is this: It removes a powerful tool from those who are indispensable to turning this problem around, our military commanders. Our military commanders are the indispensable tool to turn this around.

“I have met at length with several groups of retired military women. I specifically chose to meet with retired military women to ensure that they would be free to speak their minds. These women – all of whom had seen cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the course of their military careers – told me that the problem is not commanders. The problem is a military culture, they told us that too often tolerates excessive drinking and barracks banter that borders on sexual harassment or crosses that line; that fails to recognize the existence of service members who appear to be 'good soldiers' but in fact are sexual predators; a culture that values unit cohesion to such an extent that those who report misconduct are more likely to be ostracized than respected. None of these problems are unique to the military, but they are exacerbated in the military by the frequent rotation of military assignments, which can make it easier for predators to hide. 

“Now, the military also has a unique tool for addressing this problem: commanders who can bring about changes in command climate through mandatory training and by issuing and enforcing orders that are not possible in a civilian environment. That is what they when addressing racial discrimination and ending “don’t ask, don’t tell.” That is what they can and should do here. Weeding out sexual predators and the climate that makes it possible for them to hide is an essential ingredient in any solution to the sexual assault problem. And the military women I met with over the summer told me that our commanders are in the best position to make that change. Weakening the authority of commanders would do serious damage to their ability to accomplish it.

“All of us seek the strongest, most effective response to the plague of military sexual assault. The amendment Senator Gillibrand proposes will not strengthen our response. The evidence before us shows that it will, in fact, weaken our response, by removing decisions from the hands of commanders.

“We have two dozen historic reforms in our bill. A number of Senators, led by Senators McCaskill, Ayotte and Fischer, have continued to work on policies to strengthen our response to military sexual assault, and this has resulted in the amendment they have proposed.

“Mr. President, I will conclude by saying this. These additional reforms of the McCaskill-Ayotte-Fischer amendment are significant additions to what is in the committee bill, and I support them. What I cannot support, and I hope the Senate will not support, is legislation that would remove from our commanders the authority to combat this problem. The real strongest tool to combat this problem is the ability to send a matter to a court-martial.

“We cannot strengthen our efforts to prevent sexual assaults by reducing the likelihood of prosecution. We know from history, and from the facts, that that is the result of taking this decision away from the hands of commanders. We know of the 100 cases where other authorities, civilian authorities, have decided not to prosecute, but where the commanders then decided to pursue it anyway. That’s just in the last two years. And we don’t know of any cases that go in the other direction.

“We cannot strengthen our efforts by weakening the authority of our commanders to act against sexual assault. Commanders were tasked again with making monumental those changes in military culture, from combatting racial discrimination in the 1950s to ending “don’t ask, don’t tell” in 2011. If we are to accomplish the change in military culture that we all agree is central to combatting sexual misconduct and sexual assault, commanders are essential. We cannot fight sexual predators if we make it more difficult to try and convict them. And we cannot hold our commanders accountable for accomplishing the needed change in culture if we remove their most powerful weapon in the fight.”