Senators tout bipartisan effort to combat sexual assault in military

On Thursday, Gillibrand announced that the legislation — which would remove the decision to prosecute major crimes, such as sexual assault, from military commanders and shift that authority to experienced military prosecutors instead — now has 61 co-sponsors. This means that the legislation can clear the Senate’s 60-vote threshold to break a filibuster and secure a vote. The measure could also be tied to the Senate’s upcoming defense bill.

“The rate of sexual assault continues to climb, but the rate of cases going to trial, and the rate of cases ending in conviction, is going down,” Gillibrand said appearing on “Face the Nation” with Ernst.

Gillibrand specifically cited the 2020 murder of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén by another soldier at Fort Hood in Texas, where she had previously reported being sexually harassed.

“What also recently happened was there was a reporter out of Fort Hood because a young woman named Vanessa Guillén was murdered,” Gillibrand said. “And they did a review of what that place was like and they found it to be a toxic climate — so toxic that sexual harassment and sexual assault was not only rampant, but it was a permissive atmosphere for that type of behavior.”

Guillén is also the namesake for the House’s legislation aimed at combating sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military. The House legislation, sponsored by Rep. Jackie Speier, chair of the House Armed Services’ subcommittee on military personnel, also seeks to move the prosecution of sexual crimes out of the military chain of command, as well as make sexual harassment a stand-alone military offense and allow troops to seek damages against the Defense Department for sexual harassment and assault.

Some have expressed concerns about these measures, arguing that moving out of the chain of command could undermine a commander’s ability to hold their troops accountable.

“Well, that has been my concern in the past,” Ernst said Sunday. “And certainly we want commanders to have control over their units and the soldiers or airmen or Marines or sailors within those commands.”

She added that it will still be up to the commander to take these actions and make changes within their command, and that if they’re seeing bad behavior in their unit, they have the opportunity to fix it.

“However, it will have absolutely the effect that we are hoping for, which is that it will go to a specialized prosecutor that will then be able to evaluate if that case moves forward or not. The commander still has the opportunity to discipline within the unit and create a much better positive command climate.”

Gillibrand also noted that turning these decisions over to a “trained, unbiased military prosecutor” accomplishes two goals: It involves prosecutors who are better equipped to choose which cases they can take to trial and whether they’ll be successful; and the prosecution won’t come down to a matter of protecting one individual over another based on who they know or how valuable they are to the unit.

Gillibrand hopes that this will allow more professionalism in the process and also encourage victims to come forward more often.