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The Senate missed an opportunity this week to approve a reasonable legislative proposal that sought to address the problem of sexual assaults within the military and, more particularly, the apparent reluctance of personnel to report such misconduct.
A Pentagon survey found incidents of unwanted sexual conduct totaled about 26,000 in 2012, an increase of 7,000 from the prior survey in 2010. Those numbers suggest many soldiers and sailors are reluctant to come forward and report such behavior to their superiors, as now required by the chain of command. There were 3,192 reported cases last year.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a member of the Armed Services Committee, successfully pushed for hearings, which demonstrated that a reluctance to report to a superior officer was a factor in the low reporting rate. In some instances, the commanders are the attackers, or buddies with them, or act in such a chauvinistic manner that the victim is uncomfortable coming forward. There was testimony about commanders urging victims not to pursue charges, or failing to act on complaints.
The legislation, actually backed by a majority of 55 senators, but failing to get the 60 votes necessary to clear a procedural hurdle, would have shifted jurisdiction of any serious accusation - punishable by one year or more - to independent professional military prosecutors. Connecticut Sens. Richard Blumenthal and Chris Murphy made the right choice in backing the measure.
Too many senators, however, accepted the concerns expressed by the Pentagon that carving out an exception to the military chain of command would undermine authority. Also expressed were fears that allowing commanders to avoid dealing with the issue would cause more harm than good.
Adopted instead was a watered-down bill pushed by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that allows victims to have a say in whether their cases are heard in the military or civil justice systems - if they ever report the abuse, that is. We trust that Sen. McCaskill, a former sex-crimes prosecutor, is sincere in concluding this is the best medicine for the sickness. Unfortunately, it's not.
The expectation is this problem will not go away and at some future point the Senate will adopt Sen. Gillibrand's proposal.