A panel that ultimately will advise the Pentagon on how it can stem the shocking trend of sexual assaults within the military released a preliminary finding Thursday, saying senior officers should maintain oversight of sexual assault cases within their chains of command.
The "role of the commander" in sexual assault cases has been one of the most contentious issues facing the military, which in 2012 experienced an estimated 26,000 instances of unwanted inappropriate contact -- the vast majority of which were unreported. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has introduced legislation that would give oversight of such cases to a military lawyer outside the chain of command.
The Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel was mandated by Congress and called for by the secretary of defense. It created a subcommittee to study this specific issue, and the panel released its findings in an open meeting in Washington, D.C., Thursday. The panel may change its conclusions before it submits its ultimate advice to the secretary of defense by this summer.
"A strong majority of Subcommittee members agrees the evidence does not support a conclusion that removing authority to convene courts-martial from senior commanders will reduce the incidence of sexual assault or increase reporting of sexual assaults in the Armed Forces," a preliminary report from the subcommittee stated.
Seven of the nine members of the main panel supported the conclusion, while two opposed it.
The debate over removing commanders' authority to oversee sexual assault cases is one of the central points of the committee's deliberations. Thursday's meeting, which ran all day and followed a string of closed-door sessions, included testimony from those who support and oppose Gillibrand's proposal, as well as firsthand accounts from two women who say they were repeatedly raped and abused while on active duty.
Former Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman, D-N.Y., who spent eight years in Congress, said before working on the panel she initially agreed with Gillibrand's bill.
"I thought her proposal was right. I've changed my mind," Holtzman said Thursday.
"If removing the commander makes a difference, I would say, 'Junk it,'" she said, adding the committee has not seen any evidence supporting such a claim. "Just turning it over to a special prosecutor doesn't mean you're going to get the result you want."
Holtzman's words were met with sighs and shaking heads from two women in the audience, who testified in roughly 60 minutes of public comment about the brutal abuses they say they experienced while serving in the Army in the 1980s.
Melissa Davis gave a brutal account of her Army basic training in the early 1980s. She said a drill sergeant singled her out and repeatedly raped her, telling her he would ruin her career and that of her husband -- who also was a soldier — if she reported the incident.
"The panel before me said the chain of command is equipped to handle this," she said. "I say it's not."
"From the very day you enter the military, submission is drilled into you," she added. "There was nobody in my chain of command who I knew or felt comfortable enough to tell what happened to me. Had I had someone, anyone at that time I could have gone to, I wouldn't have been silent for 26 years."
But Holtzman cautioned against believing a proposal like Gillibrand's could serve as a "silver bullet" that would increase the number of victims who report sexual assaults and lower the overall incidence of attacks.
"We need to be honest with the American people: What is going on here and how are we going to solve it?" she said.
Elizabeth Hillman — a professor at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law — was one of the only two dissenting voices on the panel Thursday.
"Although commanders must lead the way in changing military culture, they are neither essential nor well-suited for their current role in the legal process of criminal prosecution," she said in a written statement that accompanied the subcommittee's findings.
She further touched upon a key point of advocates for reforming sexual assault procedures in the military, who say removing commanders from oversight of assault cases would allow them to focus on military operations and leave serious crimes to professional lawyers.
"This mixture of roles, in which a convening authority must both protect the overall well-being of a unit and ensure that unit's mission is accomplished as well as decide whether a specific factual context warrants prosecution, creates a conflict that cuts in different directions, all unhealthy," she wrote.
Hillman also pointed to the vast underreporting of sexual assaults within the military as the largest obstacle in trying to solve the problem.
"We don't know about the iceberg we can't see," she said during deliberations Thursday afternoon.
Of the 26,000 estimated instances of unwanted sexual contact in 2012, the Pentagon said as many as 22,000 were unreported by the victim, many times for fear of social or professional retribution.
Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, agreed with the panel's latest findings and issued a statement of support Thursday afternoon.
"Just weeks ago, we passed into law an historic re-write of the military justice system to curb these heinous crimes, with reforms grounded in sound policy," she said. "And as we aggressively implement those reforms, this panel's diligent work is providing us with crucial information that must inform any future debate about alternative proposals.
McCaskill has opposed Gillibrand's suggested legislation, but added other language to the latest defense authorization bill that puts increased pressure on the Pentagon to address sexual assaults.