US military leaders have defended a key component of the military justice system which has been widely criticised amid growing concern at the way the armed services deal with cases of sexual assault.
Affording military commanders the “convening authority” – the ultimate power to nullify convictions by military juries – is necessary for “good order and discipline”, military leaders told a Senate armed services committee hearing on Wednesday. It is the first time in 10 years that Congress has examined the issue of military sexual assault.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, the chair of the hearing, told a panel of judge advocate generals from the army, navy and air force that she was “extremely disturbed” by their answers.
The power of individual commanders to have final say on prosecutions has been thrown into the spotlight by a case at Aviano air base in Italy, in which the commander of the third air force, Lt General Craig Franklin, overturned the conviction for sexual assault of a senior fighter pilot last month. The case has fuelled concerns that the military does not do enough to protect members from sexual assault or act forcefully enough to prosecute offenders.
In a passionate exchange with the senior officers, during which Gillibrand cited 19,000 sexual assaults a year, with only 2,400 people coming forward because of fear, she questioned what constituted “good order and discipline”. She told the Jags their actions to improve the military sexual abuse crisis was “not enough”
Gillibrand asked Harding which he believed had done their duty in the Aviano case – the jury or the convening authority. When he said both, she said: “Well one of the parties was wrong”. Citing the testimony of the victim in the case, she said: “I can assure you she does not believe justice was done.”
Senator Claire McCaskill, who has said she will offer legislation to strip US military commanders of power to overturn court-martial convictions in sexual-assault cases, told them: “If this amazing power given to one individual is about the good of the whole, it appears to me that Aviano general has failed.”
The case, she said, had set the Air Force back “to Tailhook” – referring to a military scandal involving air force that happened in the 1990s.