Military Sexual Assaults Panel Meets Behind Closed Doors

Experts face powerful group that will advise Hagel on crisis facing military.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., is flanked by Sarah Plummer, left, a Marine Corps veteran and victim of sexual assault, and Kate Weber, right, a veteran who was sexually assaulted during her service in the Army, during a news conference Nov. 19, 2013, on Capitol Hill in Washington.
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This story was updated at 2:40 p.m. on 1/16/2014

The military panel studying the role of commanders in sexual assault cases now has released transcripts of its previous meetings. The transcripts for the meetings on Nov. 13 and Nov. 20, 2013, and for Jan. 8, 2014, are now available online. 

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A string of ongoing hearings and meetings conducted by a powerful panel will ultimately offer recommendations to the Pentagon chief on how to stem the growing tide of sexual assaults in the military.

[READ: Military Sexual Assault Among Key Issues Before the Senate]

At the forefront of the debate is whether the military should overturn current rules that senior officers should oversee sexual assault cases within their chain of command. The Pentagon has been openly vocal about its support of the policy, while some members of Congress and advocacy groups have staunchly opposed it, most vocally Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who has introduced legislation that would change the rules.

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel put together the nine-member Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel (RSP) – comprised of retired military officers, a former member of Congress and legal experts – to study this and other issues related to sexual assaults. The panel's Role of the Commander subcommittee met Wednesday behind closed doors at a military office building outside Washington, D.C.

At least one person who delivered expert testimony Wednesday believes the committee already has made up its mind on the chain of command issue.

"I don't think they were receptive to the statements we were giving them," says Denise Krepp, a former officer in the U.S. Coast Guard whom President Barack Obama tapped to serve as chief counsel to the U.S. Maritime Administration. She left that position abruptly in February 2012, and since has been openly critical of some of Obama's policies.

Krepp penned an op-ed in September heavily critical of a culture in the service academies and active-duty military that she says makes it almost impossible for female troops to report sexual assaults.

"I viewed it as a whitewashed hearing: 'OK, check the box, these are the people we were told to bring in,'" she says, also critical of the fact that the hearings were closed to the public and press.

"The Department of Defense, by not opening this very specific panel, prevented a lot of people from hearing some very smart men and women who support Sen. Gillibrand," Krepp says. "They're going to enable people to continue to believe that everyone in the military opposes this."

The subcommittee's meeting on Wednesday involved two panels of nine experts each: One, on which Krepp spoke, was comprised of former officers and commanders who support the idea of removing sexual assault cases from under the chain of command. A second panel opposed the move.

[ALSO: Claire McCaskill Forges Ahead on Military Sexual Assault Prosecutions]

Members of the second panel included retired Air Force Gen. Roger Brady and retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Mary Kay Hertog, who previously served as the head of the military's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office until the Pentagon announced in June 2012 she would step down. Both officers have written publicly about their support of keeping sexual assault cases within the chain of command.

Asked why the hearings were closed, panel spokeswoman Terri Saunders says such hearings do not have to be open to the public and press, according to regulations under the Federal Advisory Committee Act.

"However, while not required under FACA, in order to be completely transparent and inform the public, the subcommittee chairs have requested that all subcommittee hearings be transcribed verbatim and these transcripts will be posted on the RSP's website," she says in an email.

Transcripts for previous subcommittee hearings on Nov. 13 and Nov. 20 are still listed as "pending" on the website. Saunders says these and the transcript for Wednesday's hearing will be available "in the next few days."



Updated 1/16/2014: This article was updated with new information released by the military's sexual assault panel.