PROTECT OUR DEFENDERS REPORT AND AP INVESTIGATION SHOW THE PENTAGON MISLED CONGRESS DURING HEATED DEBATE OVER MILITARY JUSTICE TO BLOCK KEY REFORM
Former U.S. Air Force Chief Prosecutor, Sexual Assault Victims, Reform Leaders, Call on Congress to Investigate False Claims and Revisit their Votes
Washington, D.C. – Today, Protect Our Defenders (POD) released a report, “Debunked: Fact-Checking the Pentagon’s Claims Regarding Military Justice,” on the heels of an Associated Press investigation that shows the Pentagon misled Congress in order to preserve commanders’ control over sexual assault cases and block critically needed reform that was within a handful of votes of passing.
“Whether you agree or disagree with the policy at issue, every Senator should be outraged, and revisit their votes,” said Former Air Force Chief Prosecutor and Protect Our Defenders President Col Don Christensen as Congress once again takes up the National Defense Authorization Act. “Congress should hold a hearing to investigate why the Pentagon knowingly relied upon false information to derail reforms they oppose.”
In July 2013, at the height of a heated debate in the Senate over legislation to create an impartial military justice system where military prosecutors, instead of commanders, make decisions about which cases will be sent to trial, Admiral James Winnefeld, Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before Congress on behalf of the Pentagon that commanders routinely order cases to trial that civilian prosecutors “refused” to take. He also claimed these cases show there would be “fewer prosecutions” if such decisions were removed from the chain of command. In a follow-up letter to then-Chairman of the Senate Committee on Armed Services, Senator Carl Levin, Adm. Winnefeld cited 93 cases across the Armed Forces to support his claim, and stated, “I believe these statistics demonstrate the personal ownership commanders take in the discipline of their units.”
POD’s analysis of the case documents relied on by the military to support these claims and an investigative report by the AP reveal that the Pentagon distorted the facts to block reform. After years of delay, the Pentagon finally released the documents.
“This is part of a sad pattern of denial, stalling and obfuscation by the Pentagon. As a result survivors are suffering and predators are escaping justice,” said Col Christensen. “Our service members should no longer be denied access to a professional and impartial justice system that reflects the democratic principles they have sworn to protect.”
The records provided by the Pentagon show that in many of the cases where Admiral Winnefeld claimed civilian prosecutors had “declined” the case that was not in fact true. POD also found no evidence that even a single case moved forward at the “insistence” of a commander. Further investigation by the AP into the decisions of local prosecutors confirmed that in many instances these cases were never refused by civilian authorities, but were instead turned over only at the request of military prosecutors, not commanders.
These cases were used to influence undecided Senators and were cited repeatedly by lawmakers opposed to reform:
- In an op-ed published in USA Today, Senators Claire McCaskill and Kelly Ayotte made their case against reform, stating that “[i]n two years, there have been at least 93 cases in which civilian prosecutors declined to pursue charges but commanders launched a court-martial … That’s 93 victims who wouldn’t have had their day in court if commanders lost the ability to bring a case to court-martial.”
- During the floor debate on the Military Justice Improvement Act (MJIA), Senator Carl Levin argued against the bill, saying “[t]he evidence shows that removing this authority from our commanders would weaken, not strengthen, our response to this urgent problem. … In the last year we have learned that in scores of cases during the period study, commanders prosecuted sexual assault cases that civilian attorneys had declined to prosecute.”
Link to 1 Pager: https://www.protectourdefenders.com/downloads/debunked/one-pager.pdf
Link to Admiral James Winnefeld Testimony: https://www.protectourdefenders.com/debunked/admiral-winnefelds-testimony
Link to comments from Members of Congress and Admiral James Winnefeld: https://www.protectourdefenders.com/debunked/members-of-congress-citing-the-93-cases
Letter from Admiral Winnefeld to Senator Carl Levin: http://www.wsj.com/public/resources/documents/LetterToLevin23July13.pdf
Associated Press: Pentagon misled lawmakers on military sexual assault cases
ProPublica: About Face: U.S. Military Seeks Historic Overhaul of Justice System
Reuters: Pentagon chief eyes reforms to U.S. military structure
Washington Post: More high-ranking officers being charged with sex crimes against subordinates
About Protect Our Defenders: Protect Our Defenders (POD) is a human rights organization. We are the only national organization solely dedicated to addressing the epidemic of rape and sexual assault in the military and to combatting a culture of pervasive sexual harassment and retribution against victims. We honor, support and give voice to survivors of military sexual assault – including both service members and civilians assaulted by members of the military. We seek reform to ensure all survivors have access to a fair, impartially administered system of justice. Learn more about Protect Our Defenders at www.protectourdefenders.com or on Facebook at http://facebook.com/ProtectOurDefenders or follow us on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ProtectRDfnders.