Last month, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand made it known she would continue to pursue military justice reform to better prosecute cases involving sexual assault. Now, as The Hill reports, the Pentagon has issued a letter to the Senator's office countering her claims and insisting that her grasp on the latest military sexual assault data is questionable.
"The review that was conducted pursuant to your concerns, which I have enclosed, shows that the central issues raised in the report and article on based on certain misunderstandings of how the military justice system works, lack of access to information contained in the full case files or a disagreement on what 'counts' as a sexual assault," reads the letter, written by Defense Secretary Ash Carter.
The review referred to is the latest military sexual assault data Gillibrand is using to support her proposal to use independent prosecutors in military sexual assault cases. The data, which was compiled by the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders and the Associated Press, suggests the military has continually misrepresented sexual assault cases and that commanders, in many cases, chose not to pursue them, as well.
Gillibrand's latest data is based on 2013 Pentagon testimony to the Senate Armed Services Committee that focused on 93 military sexual assault cases that then-Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Navy Adm. James Winnefeld claimed civilian prosecutors refused to take on. Protect Our Defenders and AP discovered, however, that prosecutors claimed that they would have taken the cases and that two-thirds of them were either reclassified as other crimes or not pursued by commanders.
The Pentagon claims, however, that the data has been misconstrued. "The military has not historically kept records attempting to distinguish cases that are ‘declined’ or ‘deferred’ in this manner, and based on the data available, it would be difficult to make those assessments retroactively," its letter stated.
On the case reclassifications, the Pentagon also said this: "It is a common practice for prosecutors to attempt to obtain convictions for collateral charges as well, which provide additional methods of holding an individual responsible for his or her acts in the event of an acquittal for the charge of sexual assault."
Senator Gillibrand has already issued a response to the Pentagon letter, calling it inadequate. "The secretary’s letter is an eight-page list of excuses when all he should be doing now is giving a simple apology and making a plan to hold whomever prepared the misleading testimony accountable," the senator wrote in a statement.
The response from Protect Our Defenders also took issue with the letter. The organization's president, Don Christensen, is a former Air Force colonel and lawyer with decades of experience and found the response inaccurate. "If I don’t understand military justice, something’s wrong," he told reporters.
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