Washington –- The nation’s top military officers agreed that sexual assaults are a severe problem in the ranks, but they cautioned Congress Tuesday against too much  meddling in military affairs.

“Sexual assault and harassment are like a cancer within the force — a cancer that left untreated will destroy the fabric of our force,” said Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno at a Senate Armed Forces Committee hearing.

Yet Odierno also said, “without equivocation, I believe maintaining the central role of the commander in our military justice system is absolutely critical.”

A dozen Pentagon witnesses, members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other military officers were on the hot seat Tuesday as lawmakers took them to task for the high rates of sexual assault and intimidation in the military.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., a former sex crimes prosecutor, said, “predators in your ranks are sullying the great name of our American military.”

She also rebuffed the testimony of some generals that said stronger prosecutions of sex crimes would not solve the problem.

“With all due respect General Odierno, we can prosecute our way out…of the problem of sexual  predators who are not committing crimes of lust. My years of experience in this area is that they are committing crimes of violence,” McCaskilll said.

She and other lawmakers, including Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., have introduced legislation aimed at fighting sexual assaults. Several bills would strip military commanders of authority over the issue.

McCaskill’s bill, co-sponsored by Sen. Susan Collins, R-Me., would require that those found guilty of sexual misconduct or attempted misconduct be given a dishonorable discharge from the military.

Blumenthal, a member of the Senate Armed Forces Committee, has introduced a bill that would give military victims of sexual assault the same protections and rights as civilians. Those include protection from the accused, notice and opportunity to speak at trial and the right against unreasonable delay in trial proceedings.

Blumenthal is also a co-sponsor of a bill introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would remove more serious assault-related prosecutions from the military chain of command to a separate office. 

Gillibrand’s bill has received the most criticisms from military officers. The Air Force’s top officer, Gen. Mark Welsh, said it would strip commanders of authority and their ability to discipline the troops.

Gillibrand countered that many officers resent the presence of women in the military and others are not aware of the seriousness of some sex crimes and “don’t know the difference between a rape and a slap on the ass.”

Blumenthal asked Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, if he would support a proposal that would provide compensation to sexual assault victims “as an incentive for them to come forward, but also as a means of making them whole.”

“Considering someone could get restitution for getting a car robbed, isn’t it appropriate for restitution to go to a victim or survivor of sexual assault?” Blumenthal asked.

Dempsey declined to answer directly, saying instead he  would  “consider all the options presented by 26 pieces of legislation” proposed in Congress.

Among them is a bill sponsored by Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., that would provide those who say they’ve been sexually assaulted with a military lawyer, promote sexual assault-related cases to the general court martial level and bar any sexual contacts between military instructors and their trainees.

That has also been criticized by some in the Pentagon who say it would give the alleged victim too much of an edge over the accused.

But several Pentagon witnesses said they understood why Congress feels it must act. Some of them voiced support for a proposal that would change the Uniform Code of Military Justice and strip commanding officers of the power to toss out a verdict.

A recent Pentagon poll of active-duty military personnel found 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men reported receiving “unwanted sexual contact” last year. Few of them reported the incidents.

Ana has written about politics and policy in Washington, D.C.. for Gannett, Thompson Reuters and UPI. She was a special correspondent for the Miami Herald, and a regular contributor to The New York TImes, Advertising Age and several other publications. She has also worked in broadcast journalism, for CNN and several local NPR stations. She is a graduate of the University of Maryland School of Journalism.

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