(CNN) — The chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force expressed their opposition Monday to removing the chain of command from sexual assault investigations, as Sen. Carl Levin, head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said doing so might lead to confusion about the reporting process.
Legislation has been introduced to give responsibility to military prosecutors, instead of commanders, in these probes.
Levin, D-Michigan, asked each of the military heads if there currently are multiple options for reporting sexual assault, in addition to notifying a unit commander. The three generals and admiral all replied yes. They also told the committee that instances of commanders ignoring their judge advocate general’s advice in sexual assault cases are extremely rare.
Earlier, calling sexual assault in the military “an enemy to morale and readiness,” Sen. James Inhofe urged his colleagues on the Senate Armed Services Committee to tread carefully in tackling the issue.
Inhofe, R-Oklahoma, said he is opposed to any legislation “removing commanders from their indispensable roles” in the military justice system and noted that military and civilian courts are different animals because members of the military do not enjoy the same rights as civilians.
“There’s a risk of unintended consequences if we act with haste without thorough and thoughtful review,” he said.
The congressional committee called the unprecedented hearing, which includes testimony from the Joint Chiefs of Staff and top military lawyers, after Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-New York, introduced legislation that would remove the chain of command from the process victims go through to get their claims heard.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, Adm. Jonathan Greenert, chief of naval operations, Gen. James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps, and Gen. Mark Welsh, chief of staff of the Air Force, each acknowledged that sexual assault is a serious problem, but one that commanders are equipped to handle.
They all used their opening statements to the committee to express opposition to Gillibrand’s proposal.
“These crimes cut to the heart of the army’s readiness for war. They destroy the very fabric of our force — soldier and unit morale,” Odierno said.
But while there may be derelict commanders, he said, those are anomalous, and the chain of command must be “fully engaged and at the center of any solution” to the issue.
Dempsey said he has seen numerous proposals that have merit. Among them: prohibiting people convicted of sexual assault from joining the military, administrative discharges for those convicted while serving, requiring commanders to report all claims up to the next commander, and increasing the transparency of commanders’ actions.
“Our goal should be to make commanders more accountable,” he said.
Pressed later by Sen. John McCain about whether there are sufficient regulations to prevent convicted sexual predators from joining the military, Dempsey said no.
Presently, there are “inadequate protections for precluding that from happening, so a sex offender could, in fact, find their way into the armed forces of the United States,” Dempsey said.
Amos said that the Marines have tackled scourges in the past — racism after World War II and drug use after the Vietnam War — and prevailed. Discipline and behavior problems must be handled from the top down, he said.
“A unit will rise or fall as a direct result of the leadership of its commanding officer,” Amos said. “They should never be forced to delegate their authority.”
He further said that in 43 years, he couldn’t think of an incident in which he opposed a judge advocate general’s recommendation to prosecute, but he recalled many incidents in which he had ordered prosecution when the JAG advised against it.
Levin appeared to agree with the military chiefs, saying, “The chain of command has achieved cultural change before. For example, two generations ago when we faced problems with racial dissension in the military, and more recently, with the change to the ‘don’t ask don’t tell’ policy, and the chain of command can do it again.”
Gillibrand wants to give military prosecutors — rather than commanders — the power to decide whether cases are investigated because, she asserts, the current system opens the victim up to retaliation. Gillibrand and others feel commanders cannot be impartial figures, especially if both the victims and perpetrators are under their command.
“When we just talk (to victims) informally, they tell us they don’t report because they are afraid of retaliation, being marginalized, having their careers end or being blamed,” Gillibrand has said.
The military has been hit hard over the issue of sexual assault among its ranks, with the Defense Department reporting an estimated 26,000 cases of unwanted sexual contact, ranging from rape to groping, in 2012. That was a 35% jump from 2010, the Defense Department said.
The report prompted President Barack Obama, during May 24 commencement exercises at the Naval Academy, to tell graduates, “Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong.”
A handful of recent high-profile incidents have brought this issue to the forefront:
— An Army sergeant first class assigned to the sexual assault prevention unit at Fort Hood, Texas, is being investigated for alleged sexual assault, pandering, abusive sexual contact and maltreatment of subordinates.
— In early May, an Air Force officer who worked with an assault prevention unit was charged with sexual battery after being accused of grabbing a woman and groping her buttocks and breasts in a parking lot not far from his Washington office.
— Three U.S. Naval Academy football players are under investigation in an alleged sex assault involving a female midshipman at an off-campus “football house” party in April 2012, according to a Defense Department official. The victim says she learned from friends and social media that the players claimed to have had sexual intercourse with her while she was intoxicated, her lawyer said.