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The House and Senate are rushing to pass a new defense bill by the end of the year. The bill that’s been agreed on in committee does not include a key reform aimed at stemming sexual assaults in the military.
Democratic U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York had put forth that amendment, which would take sexual assault cases out of the chain of command — meaning that victims would report cases directly to law enforcement, instead of their military commander.
This week, her measure was stripped out when the House and Senate armed services committees struck a deal to pass the National Defense Authorization Act with no amendments. Now, Gillibrand’s reform will have to pass as a standalone measure.
Gillibrand joins Here & Now’s Jeremy Hobson to discuss the measure and what happens now.
“This a long journey and this is a long-term reform that is necessary in order to deal with the fact there were 26,000 sexual assaults, rapes and unwanted sexual contact last year, and only 3,000 victims felt they could come forward,” she says. “It’s a breach of trust in the chain of command, and that’s what the victims tell us — they’re not reporting these cases because they don’t trust the chain of command to do anything or to protect them from retaliation.”
Says she expects an up or down vote on a standalone bill in January.
JEREMY HOBSON, HOST:
Well, another item on the congressional to-do list this week is passing a new defense authorization bill. And in an effort to get that done, all amendments had to be removed from the defense bill, including one measure that would allow victims of sexual assault in the military to report those crimes to a prosecutor, rather than to their superior. New York Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand has been championing that reform, but this week, her measure was stripped from the bill.
Senator Gillibrand joins us now. And senator, I want to get to your bill in a moment, but first, I just want to ask you about the budget deal in Washington. You've said you have not decided how you're going to vote. But one of the big concerns has been that this deal does not include an extension of long-term unemployment benefits.
SEN. KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Well, that's one of my concerns about the budget. You know, obviously, we have to find common ground and come together and move government forward, and we cannot tolerate another government shutdown, which unfortunately cost our economy $20 billion. But when the least among us who are still struggling, do not have the support they need, it's highly concerning. So, I'm working with my colleagues to see if there's perhaps another avenue to get the unemployment insurance money, and hopefully we have a plan for how to secure that funding.
HOBSON: Do you think that will happen? Do you think it can happen?
GILLIBRAND: I do. You know, the conversations I had last night with some of the senior-most members of our party indicated to me that there was a real interest in trying to move that forward.
HOBSON: So, the House and the Senate Arms Services Committee have struck a deal to pass the National Defense Authorization Act with no amendments, which means that your amendment, which you've championed for sometime, is not going to be in there. Tell us your reaction to that.
GILLIBRAND: Well, I would have preferred to have our vote over the last few weeks. But, you know, this is a long journey, and this is a long-term reform that is necessary. In order to deal with the fact there were 26,000 sexual assaults, rapes and unwanted sexual contact last year and only 3,000 victims felt they could come forward, you have a huge problem. And it's a breach of trust in the chain of command. And that's what the victims tell us.
They're not reporting these cases, because they don't trust the chain of command to do anything or to protect them from retaliation. So, we will have a vote on this issue. We will get an up or down vote. It will be a vote on a standalone bill. We'll probably get our vote in January, and that's fine, because the way we repealed "don't ask, don't tell," interestingly, was very similar. It was not an amendment to the authorization bill. Actually, it was a standalone bill then. And so I think we'll do the same thing. The additional time helps me because I still have about a dozen undecided senators, and I will use the time productively because we still need a few more votes.
HOBSON: Although you do have some colleagues who are absolutely against it and say that if you take away authority from commanding officers, you've got a problem because they ought to be able to discipline their own troops. How do you answer that criticism?
GILLIBRAND: Well, they can discipline their own troops all they want. But this ability to make a legal decision about whether there's enough evidence to go forward for a crime is reserved for only the top commanders anyway. Most commanders, the drill sergeant, the platoon sergeant, the lower lieutenants, they never have this authority.
So I would like to remove the decision making from the colonels because too many of the victims have said they don't trust the chain of command will bring them justice, and they don't trust the chain of command will protect them from retaliation and that's actually the facts of what's happening today. Of the 3,000 brave, courageous survivors that did report their assaults and rapes, 62 percent were retaliated against.
So the chain of command is failing right now to protect those victims, to make sure retaliation doesn't happen. And then last, all of our allies have already taken away this legal decision from the chain of command for serious crimes. The U.K., Israel, Australia, Germany, Netherlands, all of them have decided, for serious crimes, that the decision maker should not be in the chain of command. It should be a trained military prosecutor. And so those militaries aren't suffering from good order and discipline without this legal right.
HOBSON: But there are improvements in the bill for sexual assault victims, right? I mean, it would require...
GILLIBRAND: Correct. The underlying bill has a lot of good reforms. We make retaliation a crime. We have more evidentiary recordkeeping. That's important. We give every victim that does come forward and report the crime a victim's counsel. Those reforms will make a difference. But interestingly, those reforms all accrue towards cases where you do report.
They don't actually do anything to increase reporting because the number one reason victims aren't reporting is because they said they don't trust the chain of command will do anything, or they fear retaliation. That's why we want to keep pushing with this bolder reform.
HOBSON: Of all the things that are going on in the world today and that you could be working on, why have you chosen this particular issue and spent so long on this issue?
GILLIBRAND: Well, when you sit down with any one survivor and you look into their eyes, and they tell you how they were brutally raped; and then when they try to report the crime, their commander or someone who's in their chain of command said it's your fault, or if you report this crime, your career is over. It breaks your heart, because these young men and women are among our best and brightest who will sacrifice anything, even die for our country.
And they are being attacked not by some foreign enemy abroad, but from their fellow members of the military in their own ranks. And if that was your son or that was your daughter, you wouldn't tolerate it. And I see these men and women as our nation's future and I cannot stand by and do nothing when they tell me about what happened to them.
HOBSON: Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, talking about the bill that she proposed that would strip military commanders of any involvement in sexual abuse allegations. Thanks so much for joining us.
GILLIBRAND: Thank you.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI, HOST:
Jeremy, really interesting interview. And Senator Gillibrand is one of several lawmakers that are taking the lead on dealing with sexual assault in the military. Do you think they're doing enough? That's what we want to know from you listeners. Let us know at hereandnow.org. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.