Washington D.C. – U.S. Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) released the following statement today in response to written testimony by Jo Ann Rooney, nominee to be the next undersecretary of the Navy, that advocated for commanding officers to continue deciding whether to prosecute sexual assault allegations because the impact of an independent, objective and non-biased military justice system where military prosecutors make these legal decisions, “…would be decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline.” Rooney currently serves as Principal Deputy Under Secretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.
“When you listen to the victims, several retired Generals, commanders and JAG officers, and the military brass themselves – it is clear there is no accountability because the trust that any justice will be served has been irreparably broken under the current system where commanders hold all the cards over whether a case moves forward for prosecution.
“And it is shocking statements like this that further erode that trust. The United States legal system based on evidence, justice and due process is the cornerstone of our democracy, why isn’t this good enough for our servicemembers who risk everything to protect those freedoms? The brave men and women we send to war to keep us safe deserve nothing less than a justice system equal to their sacrifice.
“It is time to restore that trust. It is time to move the sole decision-making power over whether serious crimes akin to felony go to trial from the chain of command into the hands of non-biased, professionally trained, military prosecutors – where it belongs.”
Full quote from Jo Ann Rooney:
“A judge advocate outside the chain of command will be looking at a case through a different lens than a military commander…I believe the impact would be decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline.”
The Military Justice Improvement Act, which will be offered by Gillibrand as an amendment when the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) goes to the full Senate floor, has the public support of 46 Senators, including 8 Republicans. Recently, in separate letters to Gillibrand, which can be read here, here, and here, three retired Generals wrote:
Lt. General Claudia Kennedy:
“Having served in leadership positions in the US Army, I have concluded that if military leadership hasn’t fixed the problem in my lifetime, it’s not going to be fixed without a change to the status quo. The imbalance of power and authority held by commanders in dealing with sexual assaults must be corrected. There has to be independent oversight over what is happening in these cases. Simply put, we must remove the conflicts of interest in the current system…The system in which a commander can sweep his own crime or the crime of a decorated soldier or friend under the rug, protects the guilty and protects serial predators. And it harms military readiness…Until leadership is held accountable, this won’t be corrected. To hold leadership accountable means there must be independence and transparency in the system. Permitting professionally trained prosecutors rather than commanding officers to decide whether to take sexual assault cases to trial is measured first step toward such accountability…I have no doubt that command climate, unit cohesion and readiness will be improved by (these) changes.”
Brigadier General Loree Sutton:
“Failure to achieve these reforms would be a further tragedy to an already sorrowful history of inattention and ineptitude concerning military sexual assault. In my view, achieving these essential reform measures must be considered as a national security imperative, demanding immediate action to prevent further damage to individual health and well-being, vertical and horizontal trust within units, military institutional reputation, operational mission readiness and the civilian-military compact. Far from ‘stripping’ commanders of accountability, as some detractors have suggested, these improvements will remove the inherent conflict of interest that clouds the perception and, all too often, the decision-making process under the current system. Implementing these reforms will actually support leaders to build and sustain unit cultures marked by respect, good order and discipline.”
Brigadier General David McGinnis:
“I fully support your efforts to stamp out sexual assault in the United States military and believer that there is nothing in (Military Justice Improvement Act) that is inconsistent with the responsibility or authority of command. Your efforts in this regard have much broader implications that will actually strengthen the ‘good order and discipline’ of our military, which I believe accounts for much of the resistance that S967 is receiving…Protecting the victims of these abuses and restoring American values to our military culture is long overdue.”
This past July, Retired Air Force Major General, Martha Rainville, the first woman in the history of the National Guard to serve as a state Adjutant General, and served in the military for twenty-seven years, including fourteen years in command positions wrote in a letter to Gillibrand:
“As a former commander, endorsing a change that removes certain authority from military commanders has been a tough decision,” said Rainville. “It was driven by my conviction that our men and women in uniform deserve to know, without doubt, that they are valued and will be treated fairly with all due process should they report an offense and seek help, or face being accused of an offense. When allegations of serious criminal misconduct have been made, the decision whether to prosecute should be made by a trained legal professional. Fairness and justice require sound judgment based on evidence and facts, independent of pre-existing command relationships.”
Other voices with military experience who publicly support Gillibrand’s bipartisan proposal, include:
“We have relied on the chain of command to deal with this issue, and the chain of command has failed for decades. America gives us their sons and daughters, and we’ve failed to discharge the responsibility to take care of them.”
Lory Manning, Captain, USN (Ret), served active duty in the U.S. Navy for 25 years, and served as a Commanding Officer and court-martial Convening Authority for the almost 400 people who were part of her command.
“As a former Commanding Officer and Convening Authority, I completely understand the services’ insistence that commanders must retain their authority to dispose of charges of sexual assault. However, as an advocate for military women – and men – it is crystal clear to me that too many commanders have betrayed the trust placed in them by their subordinates, their services and their fellow citizens because they have not used this authority properly. I have, therefore, come to the reluctant conclusion that that authority must be removed from the chain of command and placed in the hands of trained military prosecutors who can serve as unbiased, professional experts on the disposition of sexual assaults and other felony cases. This is critical to ending sexual assault in the military.” See her full letter to Gillibrand here.
“It’s time for real, commonsense changes. District attorneys and attorneys general don’t have to get permission from mayors or governors to prosecute cases because they’re independent. At the felony level, military judge advocates should be independent too.”
“Everything about the proposal takes military needs into account, except for the fact that military leaders don’t like change.”
The Military Justice Improvement Act is supported by the International Federation of Professional & Technical Engineers (IFPTE), and all the leading victim’s advocates groups, including but not limited to, Service Women’s Action Network (SWAN), Protect Our Defenders (POD), Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA), the National Women’s Law Center, Vietnam Veterans of America, The National Alliance to End Sexual Violence (NAESV), National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women, plus former Generals, former JAG officers and survivors of sexual assault across the country.