ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
At another hearing today, lawmakers heard testimony from top military officers about the crisis of sexual assault in the armed forces. Today's debate: should Congress rein in the power of commanders. Many lawmakers are convinced that commanders are standing in the way of some sexual assault prosecutions. But military leaders told senators that measures limiting their powers would erode discipline and order in the armed forces.
NPR's Larry Abramson explains.
LARRY ABRAMSON, BYLINE: Twelve top military officers lined up at a very long table before the Senate Armed Services Committee today, 11 men and one woman. They all came with the same message: Don't mess with the chain of command.
Army Chief of Staff Ray Odierno was unequivocal.
GENERAL RAY ODIERNO: I want the commander fully involved in the decisions that have an impact on the morale and cohesion of the unit, to include punishment.
ABRAMSON: Right now, military commanders get to decide which legal cases go forward. And many sexual assault victims say that leaves the system open to bias and leaves them vulnerable to retaliation. But Odierno responded with examples from the battlefield; 800 courts martial conducted in theater in Iraq and Afghanistan. Those cases, he said, could not wait for an outside prosecutor to arrive.
ODIERNO: And in some cases, this impacted not only our force's discipline but the Iraqis or Afghans that were involved in the incident that they saw - that they were able to do it right there, bring them as witnesses and prosecute the soldiers, which helped them to understand that we are holding people accountable, as well.
ABRAMSON: The Pentagon has already agreed that commanders no longer need the ability to overturn verdicts but that's about as big a compromise as the military has been willing to make. And it came only after a high profile sexual assault conviction was overturned by a commander earlier this year.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York is one of the strongest advocates for wholesale legal changes. Her legislation says that for sexual assault and other serious crimes, prosecutors not commanders should make the call.
SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: Because the commander, while you are all so dedicated and determined, not all commanders are objective. Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is.
ABRAMSON: But without exception, senior military people said, no. And some of the most passionate voices came during a second part of the hearing, from lower down in the officer corps. Colonel Jeannie Leavitt is commander of the fourth Fighter Wing at Seymour Johnson Air Base in North Carolina. She insisted she could not command effectively without what's known as convening authority, to start a legal case in motion. Senator Gillibrand challenged Leavitt.
GILLIBRAND: Why wouldn't you allow that to happen, to instill better discipline and order?
COLONEL JEANNIE LEAVITT: Yes, Senator. And I truly believe that I need to be able to back up my words. So when I tell my commanders that there is zero tolerance; that I will not tolerate any sexual assault, if I can't back it up, if I have to now turn to, you know, a separate entity but I have to send that message, that it is unacceptable because people in the unit know, they know what happened.
ABRAMSON: There is a clear division on whether to rewrite military law. What is less clear is whether the climate has changed in the military, which has frequently said it's turned the tide against sexual assault, only to fall into another scandal. The Pentagon says, this time is different.
Vice Admiral Nanette DeRenzi is now Judge Advocate General of the Navy. She was a junior officer during the 1991 Navy Tailhook sex scandal.
VICE ADMIRAL NANETTE DERENZI: I would tell you that in the time since and now, I see a difference. I see a difference in the leadership and I see a tremendous difference in the prevention and response efforts.
ABRAMSON: Those good intentions may not be enough to satisfy Congress or advocates for bigger changes.
Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.