The Steinhauer report makes clear, however, that the Pentagon is seeking to inflate, not minimize, the statistics:
Military officials cast the increase of reported complaints in positive terms and said it showed an increased willingness among victims of assault to come forward. . . .
Each year the department reports the number of assault claims, which lag behind a separate survey on sexual assault taken every other year among 1.4 million active-duty service members. Last summer that survey found that about 26,000 men and women in the military were sexually assaulted in 2011, up from 19,000 in 2010.
But again, the military defines “assault” as including any unwanted touching of “private body parts.” That goes too far even for Gloria Steinem, at least when applied to a commander in chief of whom she approves: “He is accused of having made a gross, dumb and reckless pass at a supporter [Kathleen Willey] during a low point in her life,” Steinem wrote in a 1998 New York Times op-ed. “She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.”
In exaggerating the problem of military sexual assault, the Pentagon is responding to its civilian masters in both the executive branch and Congress. A moral panic is under way, and military officers–who are trained to follow orders and whose ultimate commanders are civilians–are not equipped to resist it. The result is that weak or completely bogus cases go to courts-martial, either producing unjust verdicts or reducing conviction rates–and in the latter case giving further ammunition to politicians anxious to push the military to “do more” about “sexual assault.”
The subject of “military sexual assault” has produced some strange bedfellows in the Senate, National Journal reports. “It’s not every day that conservative Sens. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and Rand Paul, R-Ky., stand shoulder to shoulder with liberals Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.” (Blumenthal is the fellow who repeatedly lied about serving in Vietnam.)
The Tea Partiers and the lefty Dems are united behind a proposal from New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand that would “combat military sexual assaults by taking the decision of whether to prosecute out of the chain of command,” NJ notes. But it’s unlikely to pass, because there’s enough bipartisan opposition at least to sustain a filibuster. Among those opposed: Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri, whose contribution to this debate, as we’ve noted, has been a pernicious one. McCaskill is still blocking the promotion of Gen. Susan Helms for granting clemency to an officer under her command who was convicted on flimsy evidence.
Gillibrand last week used the same tactic to block Jo Ann Rooney, President Obama’s nominee to be undersecretary of the Navy, the Hill reports:
Gillibrand criticized Rooney for her testimony at her confirmation hearing earlier this month, where Rooney argued in opposition to Gillibrand’s proposal that would take sexual assault cases away from military commanders.
“A judge advocate outside the chain of command will be looking at a case through a different lens than a military commander,” Gillibrand read from Rooney’s statement at the hearing.
“I believe the impact would be decisions based on evidence, rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline. I believe this will result in fewer prosecutions and therefore defeat the problem that I understand it seeks to address,” Rooney wrote.
In a statement Thursday, Gillibrand said that statements like Rooney’s “further erode” the trust that justice can be served in the military system.
“If you were a service member raped on duty, why would you have confidence to come forward and report after hearing that basing decisions to prosecute solely on evidence would be a bad outcome?” Gillibrand said. “Jo Ann Rooney’s testimony should send chills down the spine of any member of the armed services seeking justice.”
Gillibrand is right, but for the wrong reason. It is because military commanders are not making “decisions based on evidence” that there are too many meritless prosecutions. As an empirical matter Rooney may be right, but she is wrong to view such overprosecution as a desirable outcome. Whereas McCaskill’s blocking of Helms is an outrage against fairness and justice, we can’t say we’re troubled by Gillibrand’s blocking of Rooney.
It’s not clear, however, that Gillibrand’s proposal, which would set up an independent sex-crime prosecutor’s office within the military, would be an improvement. Independent civilian prosecutors are not known for their restraint in pursuing dubious charges, and anyone who held the post would understand–as military commanders do today–that the politicians are more concerned about the quantity of prosecutions than their quality.
The Gillibrand proposal and the status quo, then, both seem unsatisfactory. As long as politicians (and journalists) persist in exaggerating the prevalence of sexual assault in the military, the Pentagon will follow suit, and prosecutions on false or dubious charges will continue to proliferate. A decent resolution to this problem will remain impossible until the moral panic passes. One can only hope the effectiveness and morale of the U.S. military doesn’t suffer too much in the interim.