Social media and the Internet have made it impossible for nefarious military commanders to manipulate sexual assault cases within their chain of command, a group of retired top military officers said on Thursday.
The Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel held a public session on Thursday to hear from experts about the so-called "role of the commander," delving into concerns that sexual assault victims do not report these crimes in part for fear that their superiors could influence the outcome. The panel that will ultimately advise the Pentagon on how to stem military sexual violence.
Panel member Elizabeth Holtzman, a former congresswoman from New York, asked the group of recently retired three- and four-star flag officers whether this is possible.
"Can commanders squelch it? Can they interfere with the investigation? Can they stop it in the process? Can they push this under a rock?" she asked.
The four experts, including Retired Army Gen. Ann Dunwoody, the first woman to reach the four-star rank, and Air Force Gen. Roger Brady, former commander of U.S. Air Forces Europe, shook their heads "no."
"I don't know what rock you've been living under if you think you can hide anything from this audience," Brady said. "We live in a glass house. It's a trite phrase, but it's absolutely true."
"If you're in any position of authority in 2014, there is some young airman, some young [private first class], some young soldier who can see you do anything," he said.
Brady gave the example of a senior officer using his staff car to drop his child off at school. Anyone there with a camera-phone could document the inappropriate use of taxpayer funds, he said.
Officers cannot hide anything, and that's the way it ought to be, he said.
"There's this notion that there is a 'good old boy network' that would allow people to sweep this under the rug," added Dunwoody. "My experience is that's not the case."
Brady later told U.S. News that the Internet age has created a culture where officers feel everybody is watching them. For those who would choose to meddle in a sexual assault investigation, he says, "You've got standards problems if you think you can, and you're dumb if you think you can.
"So it's kind of a double whammy. You're not going to hide anything."
Yet advocates of sexual assault victims say the situation is not so clear cut.
"If you talk to a sexual assault survivor, they'll tell you that it can be done. And it is being done," says Greg Jacob, a former Marine infantry officer and policy director at the New York-based Service Women's Action Network.
Commanders are not necessarily meddling in these cases by picking up a phone and ordering "squash that investigation," he says. Congress' latest defense bill makes that kind of malfeasance even more difficult, following new oversight rules that mandate all sexual assault cases be reported to both the immediate commander, as well as the next higher in the chain of command.
"The idea that it puts you at great peril or that it's a difficult thing to do, technically that's not the case," says Jacob. "The real issue, though, is these kinds of reports get squashed before they even get onto the desk of the commander."
Jacob points to continued fears among sexual assault victims who may choose to report their crimes, that nothing will happen to the perpetrator or the victim will receive social or professional retaliation for reporting assaults.
Current military rules give power to the commander not only to choose which cases go to trial, but also to pick the jury and amend the decision of the court if necessary.
The military estimates 26,000 cases of unwanted and inappropriate contact occurred in the military in 2012. As many as 22,000 of these went unreported.
"That's really where these things are being squashed," Jacobs says. "When we talk about objectivity and whether there's a conflict of interest, that's where the conflict of interest lies."
Dunwoody later told U.S. News that Google, YouTube and social media has allowed information to flow globally "in nanoseconds."
"Before, we didn't even have computers when I was a captain," she said. "We've always been in a glass house. Even before social media, we've always been held to a higher standard. Is it more visible? Yes, but our responsibilities to be role models...have never changed."