The Defense Department is about to get a new boss, but he’s not likely to change the way the military handles sexual assault cases.
Secretary of Defense nominee Ashton Carter faced several questions related to sexual violence in the military during his confirmation hearing Wednesday, which he is expected to sail through. In response, Carter said that sexual assaults are “particularly offensive in the military,” and acknowledged that the armed services are not doing enough to stop retaliation against service members who report such crimes. But he offered few specifics as to how he would address the issue.
Carter also indicated that he would preserve the current structure of the military justice system, which puts commanding officers in charge of sexual assault prosecutions. Whether that system sets up conflicts of interest and discourages reporting, or is essential for getting commanders to “buy in” to efforts to combat sexual assault, is the defining point of disagreement between lawmakers concerned about the problem. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand and several dozen of her colleagues have long advocated for a reform that would allow military prosecutors to decide when accusations of a crime warrant a court-martial. But the Pentagon’s allies in the Senate—most vocally, Missouri Democrat Claire McCaskill—argue that the problem can be dealt with through more modest reforms; so far they’ve succeeded in blocking Gillibrand’s measure.
Carter, who called himself “a stickler for the chain of command” in his opening statement, addressed this debate obliquely in a written response to one of the 300-plus questions submitted in advance by the Armed Services committee:
Q. What is your view of the willingness and ability of the Services, and military commanders in particular, to hold assailants accountable for their acts?
A. A top priority of DoD must be to hold assailants appropriately accountable for their acts. This must be carried out by the Services and military commanders.
Responding a question directly related to the proposal to take prosecutions out of the chain of command, Carter answered, in part, “The Department is concerned that this change could tell commanders that it is not their job to root out the evil of sexual assault. I further understand that a congressionally-mandated independent panel found no evidence that removing commanders from the process would improve accountability of offenders or reporting by victims.”
“I have the same passion you do,” Carter assured Gillibrand during the hearing when she expressed concern about the 20,000 instances of assault, ranging from groping to rape, that took place in the military last year. “These are violations of honor and trust,” he added. “We’ve got to root it out.”
This kind of acknowledgement of the problem, or the promise to fix it, is not new. Indeed, the Pentagon has been promising “zero tolerance” towards sexual assault for more than two decades. Carter agreed with Gillibrand that the military has failed to enforce this zero-tolerance policy, but he failed to offer any indication that his efforts to do so would be any more effective. (At least he had not done so by the time the Senate took a lunch break; at the time of this writing the hearing is ongoing.) When McCaskill asked him to specify what he planned to do in response to Pentagon statistics indicating that nearly two-thirds of survivors who reported crimes against them last year were retaliated against, Carter’s response was meager: “You can count that I am attentive to this issue of retaliation and determined to do something about it.”
Carter did offer a commitment to keep an open mind to proposals for change. “I understand from your testimony that you place a premium on the chain of command,” Gillibrand told the nominee. “I would like you to, though, consider all options for how you can reform the military justice system to actually professionalize it, make it more effective.” Carter responded, “I will.”