Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand on Thursday called defense legislation in the House “inadequate” because it doesn’t overhaul how the military prosecutes major crimes, including sexual assault.
The New York Democrat, speaking during POLITICO’s Women Rule Summit on sexual assault in the military, mentioned the case of Spc. Vanessa Guillén, a soldier who was sexually harassed and later killed in Fort Hood, Texas, last year, as an example of why the legislation needed to be more expansive. Guillén’s killing would not be given the proper attention under guidelines outlined in the current House bill, she said.
“It doesn’t cover murder,” she said. “It doesn’t create an independent chain of command, an independent review outside of the chain of command. And it doesn’t do a bright line at all serious crimes. It’s an issue of justice.”
Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) also appeared on the Women Rule panel. Ernst, a retired lieutenant colonel in the Army National Guard, said Guillén’s murder was the point at which she realized “enough was enough.”
“We’ve given the military enough time. Now it’s time to be very aggressive about the moves that we’re making,” she said. “If the military won’t make the changes necessary, then I will partner with Senator Gillibrand, work with her on this legislation, and we will be the ones that make that difference.”
Prosecutors said that a fellow soldier killed Guillén and then tried to dispose of her remains. Army Spc. Aaron Robinson, 20, was charged with Guillén’s murder in July 2020, though he had killed himself a few days before the charge was announced publicly.
Robinson’s girlfriend, Cecily Aguilar, was arrested in July 2020 in Killeen, Texas. According to Justice Department court documents, Robinson told Aguilar, a civilian, that he had hit Guillén in the head with a hammer repeatedly, killing her. The two then tried to dismember and burn Guillén’s remains, according to the court documents.
Aguilar was indicted on 11 counts related to tampering with documents and during an indictment by a grand jury in Waco, Texas, in July. She pleaded not guilty to all charges.
Annual defense policy legislation approved in July by the Senate Armed Services Committee, of which Gillibrand and Ernst are members, includes the senators’ legislation to remove military commanders’ authority to prosecute all serious crimes, including sexual assault, and hand them to independent military prosecutors.
In July, President Joe Biden said he supported changes to how military sexual assault cases are prosecuted. Under the changes, commanders would have no input on prosecution in sexual assault cases, and all decisions on those cases are given to a special victims prosecutor. However, he stopped short of extending these procedures to all major crimes, something that is included in Gillibrand and Ernst’s bill.
The current Senate bill was tucked into the National Defense Authorization Act. However, Gillibrand started working on changing prosecutions for sexual assault in the military eight years ago. Ernst was previously a holdout on the concept, but recently teamed up with Gillibrand on the bill.
The House version of the bill that is set to pass Thursday evening overhauls the way the military services handle prosecutions for sex crimes, but doesn’t include Gillibrand’s proposal to remove prosecution of all serious crimes from the chain of command.
“We believe this change will change who gets prosecuted and what the outcomes of those cases are,” Gillibrand said on Thursday. “And that sends a message to the military, that these crimes will not be tolerated.”
Ernst said that removing all nonmilitary felonies from the chain of command would prevent women from feeling isolated by having sexual assault cases reviewed only by an outside prosecutor.
Though there are male survivors of sexual assault, “typically, when you think sexual assault, you’re thinking women, and there are a lot of women that are sexually assaulted in the military,” Ernst said.
“What we want to do is remove the most heinous crimes, including murder, kidnapping, out of the chain of command,” Ernst said. “The commander can still focus on issues that are related to military good order and discipline. They still have authority over other types of crimes, but we’re taking anything that would imprison a service member for a year or more and moving it to that special prosecutor.”
Gillibrand said they would call on Biden to back the reform, since he previously stated his support.
“He said, during his campaign, when asked, ‘Would you take sexual assault, and rape, and murder, and child abuse out of the chain of command?’ He said, ‘Yes, yes, yes, I would take it all,’” Gillibrand said “And so he is with us, and he is the commander in chief. If necessary, we will hopefully get President Biden engaged on this issue so that he can let his chairmen of the committees know how important it is to him.”