Senate Passes Defense Authorization Act Addressing Military Sexual Assault; Obama Orders One-Year Review

After a year of women senators campaigning for bipartisan efforts to address the military's problem with sexual assault, the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) was passed 84-15 Thursday night and sent on to President Obama, who will likely put his signature on it. The President announced today that he's ordering a review of efforts included in this bill to reduce — if not eliminate —sexual assault in the military, to be turned in Dec. 1 next year.

"If I do not see the kind of progress I expect, then we will consider additional reforms that may be required to eliminate this crime from our military ranks," Obama said.

While obviously a defense bill, the NDAA, renewed each year, contains this year strict new policies for the military regarding sexual assault —an effort led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) at the forefront. The legislation places more accountability on the military. It no longer allows commanders to overturn jury convictions, and if a commander chooses not to prosecute a case, a civilian review will be called. The backup is a critical measure for alleged victims: only 302 of an estimated 26,000 sexual assault cases last year went to trial — about one-tenth of the cases reported to commanders.

The new Defense Act also requires that those convicted of sexual assault be dishonorably discharged. The legislation addresses and protects victims directly by providing them with legal council, getting rid of the statute of limitations for sexual assault, and making retaliation against victims a crime. And, in part due to the recent maltreatment of a female midshipman, intrusive questioning (in her case, about her oral sex technique and underwear) will be prohibited.

However, one very important clause did not make it into the bill: Gillibrand's proposal to take military cases away from the chain of command and put them into civilian courts (even though she got many bipartisan senators on board like Senator Ted Cruz).

Gillibrand and McCaskill drew attention when they grilled military officials back in June. Chiefs of the armed forces admitted the military hadn't exactly been dealing well with assault, saying they were "like a cancer."

"Not every single commander necessarily wants women in the force. Not every single commander believes what a sexual assault is. Not every single commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and a rape because they merge all of these crimes together," Gillibrand said.

Also apparent in the Defense Authorization Act is a lessening of military spending, due to both the deficit and what looks an an effort to tone down the U.S.' involvement in conflicts overseas: the regular military budget will receive $552.1 billion, and the war in Afghanistan and other operative theaters will be receiving $80.7 billion. The bill does, however, provide a one percent pay raise to military employees.

"This bill is not a Christmas gift to our troops and their families," said Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich. "Supporting our troops and their families is what we owe them. It's the least we can do, for they are the gift, they are the gift to this country, to this nation and to all of its people."