ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The Senate is debating substantial new reforms to more aggressively prosecute sexual assault within the military. Over the past several months, two rival plans, crafted by two Democratic women in the Senate, have emerged. One would strip from commanders the authority to decide which sexual assault cases to prosecute. And the other plan preserves that power for commanders.
Well, with us now to talk about the two approaches is NPR's congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Hi, Ailsa.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: Hi, there.
SIEGEL: Let's first talk about the gravity of the problem. Why has the Senate decided that sexual assault in the military needed to be addressed with sweeping legislation?
CHANG: Because the data has gotten really troubling. While sex crimes have been a terrible, ugly part of reality in the military - just as they are outside the military - what deeply disturbed lawmakers is data showing people in the military were not reporting these crimes, and that these crimes were barely getting prosecuted. In fact, the Pentagon estimated that last year alone, there were 26,000 sexual assaults, based on confidential surveys. And other data show only about 3,000 of those cases were actually reported. And then, out of all those reports, only about 300 cases actually went to trial.
So the heart of what the Senate has been debating is what can be done to more robustly prosecute these crimes and a key problem that many victims have touched upon is that they feared reporting the attacks because they thought their commanders couldn't be impartial.
One rape survivor named Sara Plummer(ph) described precisely this dilemma at a press conference yesterday. She's a former captain in the Marine Corps.
SARA PLUMMER: When you are raped by a fellow service member, it is like being raped by your brother and having your father or mother decide the case.
SIEGEL: Well, how did the Senate proposals attempt to encourage the reporting from victims?
CHANG: Well, the proposal from Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York took the more aggressive approach. She's collected stories from many victims who either tried reporting an attack to a commander who did nothing or refrained from reporting because she didn't trust the commander and feared retaliation. So Gillibrand proposed that military prosecutors rather than commanders should be the ones to decide when to prosecute a sexual assault or any other serious offense with the exception of crimes that are uniquely military in nature, like disobeying orders or going AWOL, because Gillibrand thinks commanders just don't have the expertise to weigh legal evidence the way trained prosecutors can.
SENATOR KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND: And I can tell you, I've heard from a lot of commanders, they don't really want this job. They want to win wars. They want to fight wars. They want to manage their troops. They don't want to be looking at a case file and weighing legal evidence. They want to do their jobs.
SIEGEL: So Senator Kirsten Gillibrand. What's the criticism of her approach? What's the alternate view?
CHANG: Well, the problem for many lawmakers is that stripping commanders of the power to prosecute very serious crimes weakens the overall authority of commanders. And their view is that for there to be what's called good order and discipline in the military, a commander's authority must be vast. So Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill of Missouri takes this view and she doesn't think commanders are less vigorous than prosecutors anyway about holding attackers accountable.
SENATOR CLAIRE MCCASKILL: If these outside lawyers are recommending that we go forward based on their independent investigation, are commanders shutting them down? Are commanders saying we will not go forward? No one can find me a case where that happened.
CHANG: So McCaskill has pushed almost 30 other reforms, reforms that Gillibrand supports, like commanders can no longer overturn jury verdicts or anyone convicted of a sexual assault will get a dishonorable discharge or dismissal, also retaliation against a victim would be a crime under military law.
SIEGEL: Ailsa, talk a little bit about the politics of this in the Senate. Who has allied with whom over this issue?
CHANG: Well, it's been really interesting seeing the women of the Senate take ownership over this issue. Almost a dozen of them spilled out onto the floor yesterday to debate this. And, you know, both Gillibrand and McCaskill are extremely experienced lawyers who have both taken a very critical look at the military justice system. And months ago Gillibrand got the backing of two conservatives, Republican Ted Cruz of Texas and Rand Paul of Kentucky.
And it was kind of surreal to see Cruz standing up there with her at a press conference alongside other Democrats like Barbara Boxer, especially now with the government shutdown in our memories. So it's been clear, military sexual assault is not a partisan issue at all.
SIEGEL: Thank you, Ailsa.
CHANG: You're welcome.
SIEGEL: That's NPR congressional reporter Ailsa Chang. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.