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Gillibrand: Stefanik ‘being misled’ on military sexual assault

GLENS FALLS – The voice of survivors should take precedence over the voice of military leaders in the debate over transferring prosecution of military sexual assault cases from military commanders to independent military trial lawyers, said U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand.

“The weight of the evidence is, ‘This is a good reform that will make a difference,'” Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Wednesday in a meeting with The Post-Star editorial board.

Gillibrand was responding to a question about what advice she would give to U.S. Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Willsboro, who has said military leaders, including some at Fort Drum near Watertown, believe investigations should remain with commanders, but other preventive measures should be taken.

“I think she is being misled, because if you talk to survivors, and I’ve spent a lot of time talking to the survivor community, overwhelmingly they support this reform,” said Gillibrand, who has been advocating since 2013 to change jurisdiction.

Both legislators serve on armed services committees in their respective chambers and have influence on military issues.

Gillibrand said military sexual assault survivors have said they did not report sexual assault to commanders because they didn’t feel it would be investigated and because they feared retaliation.

“You either believe them when they say that, or you don’t,” Gillibrand said. “I don’t think the generals have enough information to know what’s working and what’s not working.”

Stefanik would not comment for this report directly.

“Congresswoman Stefanik does not support taking authority away from the commanders,” said Tom Flanagin, a Stefanik spokesman, in a prepared statement.

Flanagin said multiple experts, including a military panel that studied the issue, concluded military prosecutors routinely have a higher rate of bringing cases to trial and getting convictions than civilian prosecutors.

Gillibrand’s proposal is for independent military trial lawyers, not civilian lawyers, to take over prosecution.

Flanagin said the House version of a recent military defense appropriations bill contains numerous measures to address sexual assault in the military.

“Congresswoman Stefanik believes we should strengthen our outreach at the earliest level to create awareness for our youngest soldiers that there is zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military,” Flanagin said.

Gillibrand said the military does not allow active-duty members to recommend transferring prosecution from commanders.

“We’ve been told when we met with Col. (Don) Christensen, who was the most senior prosecutor for the Air Force for these cases – he was told by his command that he could not speak to this legislation when he was testifying before one of the congressional panels,” Gillibrand said. “They said, ‘You may not support it. You will be reprimanded if you do so.'”

Christensen is now retired and heads the group Protect Our Defenders, which advocates to transfer prosecution from military commanders.

“And then we have a bunch of generals who have just retired who have the freedom to speak out,” Gillibrand said. “So the highest-ranking female general ever in the Army supports it. The highest ranking female psychiatrist in the Army supports it.”

Stefanik is running for re-election against Democrat Mike Derrick, a retired Army colonel from Peru, and Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello, a bread company owner and political activist from Hudson Falls.

Gillibrand said Derrick’s support for transferring prosecution of sexual assault cases from military commanders to independent military trial lawyers is one of the reasons she will endorse Derrick’s candidacy.

Gillibrand agrees with Stefanik and Derrick on a proposal to locate a strategic missile defense system at Fort Drum, even though some Pentagon officials do not see the need for the system. Funiciello opposes it.

“I think it would be a wise investment,” Gillibrand said.

“It may not be the technology the military needs to win the wars today,” she said. “But I am looking at the future. I want to create the force we need tomorrow. I want to create the technology we need tomorrow.”

Gillibrand said locating the missile defense system at Fort Drum would strengthen the Jefferson County base’s position in the event of another Defense Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

“We don’t need one (BRAC) in this year, but we may need one in the next five years,” she said.

“I think Fort Drum is probably one of the most effective training facilities in the entire United States. So I don’t fear for Fort Drum, but you have to continue to invest and modernize and show how valuable it is.”

(Editor’s note: Four daily newspapers in the North Country – the Enterprise, Post-Star of Glens Falls, Watertown Daily Times and Press-Republican of Plattsburgh – are sharing content to better cover New York’s 21st Congressional District.)