Harry Reid to Rewire: Military Sexual Assault Reporting System Needs Fixing

Having already asked lawmakers to take away commanders' authority to overturn sexual assault convictions, Reid is now considering a measure that would entirely remove sexual assault cases from the chain of command.

Harry Reid, on an interview with ABCNews in February. ABCNews / YouTube

In a meeting today with reporters, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid had few kind words for military leaders as news hit the media of yet another sexual assault scandal involving a military officer who was designated to handle sexual assault cases. But he stopped just short of endorsing legislation expected to be offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would remove the investigation and adjudication of sexual assault cases in the military from the chain of command, saying he had yet to read the bill.

According to the Washington Post, this most recent case involves a sergeant first class in the U.S. Army, stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, who, in addition to allegedly engaging in “abusive sexual contact,” is reported to have forced a subordinate into sex work.

The sergeant has not yet been charged, and his name has yet to be released.

Last week brought news of the arrest of Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, the officer in charge of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention unit, for sexual battery of a civilian, and earlier this week the Post’s Craig Whitlock wrote of an ongoing crisis involving what he called “a string of sex-crime scandals” among military recruiters, several involving teenage women as victims.

Each of these reports broke against the backdrop of the latest Pentagon report on sexual assault in the military, which showed a marked uptick from the previous year’s report, with an estimated 26,000 military personnel, most of them women, experiencing sexual assault by colleagues, up some 37 percent from the year before.

Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel responded to the Fort Hood incident by ordering all branches of the armed forces to “re-train, re-credential and re-screen” all sexual assault officers and military recruiters.

“Too bad they didn’t do it before,” said Reid in response to a question from Rewire, “because, as I wrote to the Pentagon last week, this present system is not working well.”

“If you wrote a script, you couldn’t imagine this,” the majority leader said. “This is a big story.”

Reid noted that he had long been an advocate of fully integrating women into all aspects of military endeavors, and that he had no intention of backing off. “Women can do anything men can do in the military, with rare exceptions,” he said.

After the release last week of the Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, Reid wrote to the leaders of armed forces oversight committees in both the Senate and the House, urging them to include measures to address the sexual assault crisis in the next defense appropriations bill. In a letter addressed to Sens. Carl Levin (D-MI) and Jim Inhofe (R-OK), the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Reid wrote:

Specifically, I urge you to eliminate the ability of military commanders to arbitrarily reverse convictions under the Uniform Code for Military Justice for sexual assault. This authority, which can currently be exercised without any stated reason or regard for the merits of a case, cannot continue to be an impediment to accountability and justice. Moreover, I believe we should examine whether there are other tools to improve the military justice system’s effectiveness in identifying and prosecuting perpetrators.

Gillibrand wants to take reforms a step further by removing such cases from oversight within the chain of command in order to protect assault victims from reprisals. Hagel is said to be resistant to such a change to the current system, which has been done effectively in the armed forces of the United Kingdom, Israel, and other countries.

Asked if he endorsed Gillibrand’s approach, Reid said that he had just talked to the New York senator this morning about her measure, but hadn’t yet read the text—although, he said, “I’d be happy to look at it favorably.”

In his meeting with reporters, Reid addressed a range of issues, including immigration, the Justice Department subpoena of Associated Press phone records, the Benghazi investigations, and background checks for firearms purchases.