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Protecting senior officers
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"The Army has disgraced us all with the Sinclair sentence."
That's what our friend, a retired general, wrote about the case of Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair, who was accused of serious sexual misconduct with three women under his command. Only the third Army general to face court martial in 60 years, Sinclair received a tap -- not even a slap -- on the wrist: a reprimand and a $20,000 fine. No jail time.
To our friend, the Sinclair case represents a classic example of what he calls SOPA, the "Senior Officers Protective Association," operating "at its most disgusting level."
The day the Sinclair verdict came down, a member of the Navy football team, Joshua Tate, was acquitted on charges of raping a fellow midshipman during a drunken party near Annapolis. The pretrial phase of that case contained a particularly obscene episode when lawyers for the player repeatedly questioned the woman about her preferences in underwear and sex acts.
Susan Burke, an attorney for the accuser, said that her client was "twice victimized: first by her attacker and then by the failed investigation and prosecution of this case."
Yes, the military has made some progress in confronting the appalling level of sexual violence rampant in its ranks. And Congress has passed some useful reforms. But these two cases show how deep the problem runs, and how much the brass still has to learn.
At least the Sinclair and Tate cases came to trial. Many don't get that far. During recent Congressional hearings, proponents of tougher measures offered these shocking statistics: In 2012, there were an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults on military personnel, men as well as women. Only 3,374 were reported and only 880 were prosecuted.
The Sinclair and Tate verdicts reinforce the lesson taught by those numbers: Don't bother to complain; the SOPA still rules.
What can be done? Congress did pass some positive changes in December: ending the statute of limitations on sexual assault and rape cases; barring military commanders from overturning jury convictions in such cases; mandating the dishonorable discharge of anyone convicted of a sex crime.
But on one contentious issue, the lawmakers balked. Sen. Gillibrand strongly advocated a proposal that would have struck directly at the SOPA by removing military commanders from the prosecution of sexual assault cases. The current system, she argued, is "like your brother committing the sexual assault and having your father decide whether to prosecute."
Gillibrand attracted 55 votes including 11 Republicans. But the military lobbied hard to retain the current system, and her amendment fell five votes short of breaking a filibuster. Until the influence and attitude of the Senior Officers Protective Association is profoundly altered, the epidemic of sexual violence in the military will continue.
Steve and Cokie Roberts can be contacted by email at stevecokie@gmail.com.