The Senate is poised to vote soon to make sweeping changes in the way the military handles complaints of sexual assault. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has said 46 senators — 38 Democrats and eight Republicans — support her proposal to remove the power to decide whether to try sexual assault cases from the military chain of command and put it in the hands of an independent military prosecutor. Last week, the Pentagon revealed that sexual assault in the military increased by 46 percent in the past fiscal year. In total, more than 3,500 sexual assaults were reported from last October through June, compared to roughly 2,400 over the same period the previous year. Pentagon officials claim the spike shows more victims are coming forward. But sexual assaults are still dramatically underreported in military ranks; a recent survey estimated 26,000 people were sexually assaulted in 2011 alone. We are joined by Amy Ziering, producer of the Oscar-nominated film "The Invisible War," which interviews veterans from multiple branches of the U.S. military about their experience of being assaulted.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: The Senate is poised to vote soon to make sweeping changes in the way the military handles complaints of sexual assault. Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York has said 46 senators—38 Democrats and eight Republicans—support her proposal to remove the power to decide whether to try sexual assault cases from the military chain of command and put it in the hands of an independent military prosecutor.
AMY GOODMAN: Last week, the Pentagon revealed reports of sexual assault in the military increased by 46 percent in the past fiscal year. In total, more than 3,500 sexual assaults were reported from last October through June, compared to roughly 2,400 over the same period the previous year. Pentagon officials claim the spike shows more victims are coming forward. But sexual assaults are still dramatically underreported in the military ranks. A recent survey estimated 26,000 people were sexually assaulted in 2011 alone.
In a moment, we’ll be joined by Amy Ziering, producer of the Oscar-nominated film, The Invisible War. Senator Gillibrand has credited the film with helping to shape her push to sexual assault legislation, saying it helped give victims a face. This is the trailer of The Invisible War.
MYLA HAIDER: I joined the military halfway through my senior year of high school, wanting to serve my country.
KORI CIOCA: The Coast Guard said that they could get me in within a month. They shipped me off.
JESSICA HINVES: I loved that I could keep up with the guys and work as hard as they did.
ARIANA KLAY: The professionalism, the camaraderie.
HANNAH SEWELL: Getting out there and giving it my all.
TRINA McDONALD: It’s what I chose to do.
JESSICA HINVES: Everything changed the day that I was raped.
AMY HERDY: I’ve never seen trauma like I’ve seen from veterans who have suffered military sexual trauma.
KORI CIOCA: This goes everywhere with me. You always have protection with Jesus, but sometimes you need just a little bit more.
SUSAN BURKE: Most Americans assume there is access to a system of justice.
STACE NELSON: You’d see a guy get five years for drugs and two weeks for rape.
KORI CIOCA: They let this man get away with everything but murder.
JESSICA HINVES: They gave him Military Professional of the Year Award during the rape investigation.
MYLA HAIDER: It was a laughing matter.
TIA CHRISTOPHER: He says, "You’re the third girl to report rape this week. Are you guys like all in cahoots? You think this is a game?"
AMY HERDY: About half-a-million women have now been sexually assaulted in the U.S. military.
MYLA HAIDER: Civilians see it as being a military problem.
RUSSELL STRAND: Anybody can be a victim of sexual assault.
HELEN BENEDICT: Rapists are repetitive criminals.
RUSSELL STRAND: Why would they stop?
ANU BHAGWATI: They go on to literally prey on women and men, girls and boys, in our neighborhoods back home.
AMY HERDY: It’s very difficult to do a story on the most powerful institution in the world.
REP. HENRY WAXMAN: The Department of Defense has a history of covering up sexual offense problems. I don’t know who you think elected you to defy the Congress of the United States. What is it you’re trying to hide?
AMY GOODMAN: The trailer of The Invisible War. Last night, the Puma Impact Awards at the New York Times Center were given out, and this film, the audience award, got a special commendation. The producer was there; she’s with us now, Amy Ziering, producer of The Invisible War. And when you went up on the stage, Amy, you talked precisely about this legislation put forward by Senator Gillibrand. Talk about its significance.
AMY ZIERING: It’s hugely significant. There’s been 20 bills recently that have been passed either through the House or Senate that—and also drafted in both those places—that deal with issues of sexual assault in the military. This is the only bill that actually we feel will affect the military significantly enough to radically reduce these numbers, and that’s why we’re pushing behind it so fiercely.
AMY GOODMAN: Explain the origins of the Gillibrand bill. What exactly would it do?
AMY ZIERING: It would take the adjudication of these sex crimes, of sexual assault crimes, outside the chain of command and put them in a military—independent body of military adjudicators, that are not related, that wouldn’t know any of the people involved, neither the perpetrator nor the assailant. And that’s what we feel is sort of the Achilles’ heel of this issue and the real leverage point, because what we have found in interviewing hundreds and hundreds of survivors and generals, etc., is that people don’t feel comfortable reporting. They feel that they will not be—have any access to an impartial system of justice. So, that’s—this bill will change that single-handedly, and we feel that once people feel safe reporting, you’ll hear reports go up. Then you can have prosecutions go up, and then we can actually see these crimes reduced.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And when you see the military responding to the reports of the sharp increase in sexual assaults by saying it’s just a question of more people feeling the ability to come forward and report it, what’s your response to that?
AMY ZIERING: Well, those numbers are interesting. I mean, the numbers are rising, but still the percentage of people reporting is 85 to 90 percent do not report. So what we’re actually seeing is an increase in numbers without an increase in overall reporting. So it’s interesting. There’s sort of—so, it’s actually—it’s unclear what this actually means. And that’s why we’re very fearful that this epidemic is continuing to grow, unless we do something that will actually reduce it.
AMY GOODMAN: Amy, the power of The Invisible War was the stories of the victims, the men and the women. Tell us one of those stories and what it would mean if they had this new avenue to report the crime.
AMY ZIERING: Oh, my gosh. I can’t—I think almost every story was a case in which—I mean, Trina McDonald was assaulted by people that—she had to report to the military police; the military police were assaulting her. And they were extremely close to everyone in her command chain. So, she had nowhere to go and couldn’t tell anyone. And we—25 percent of the crimes committed are by people within the chain of command itself, so how can you report to someone who’s assaulting you?
AMY GOODMAN: So, what would you do then? How would it work under the new legislation?
AMY ZIERING: Under the new legislation, there would be an independent body that people knew they could go to. And it would not necessarily—it wouldn’t go—and that body—just, we already have a military—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But this would be an independent body within the military.
AMY ZIERING: Yes, that already exists. We would just put these crimes over there. And that’s what’s so crazy making, is this—it’s not this radical change. It’s not taking outside entirely; it’s just putting it in a different body that already exists in the military.
AMY GOODMAN: It exists for what?
AMY ZIERING: It exists for—well, it exists for all the crimes that already are committed. The commander confers with that body. We’re just asking the commander to be out of this loop—does that make sense?—and not have any kind of oversight of these crimes, so it would be much cleaner. And people would feel like, OK, actually I could get a fair shake at this.
AMY GOODMAN: So where does the legislation stand now?
AMY ZIERING: We have 47—or did you say 48—senators now who are in favor of the legislation. It would need a 51 percent majority, right, to pass, so we’re closing that gap. And that’s why we’re—but there’s been talk that there would be a filibuster, and they would want it to go to 60 votes. So that’s the concern right now. I can’t imagine that people would filibuster against the rights of people to—you know, to have access to an impartial system of justice, but—
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But—and even if it went through the Senate, it would still have to go through the House, as well, right?
AMY ZIERING: Correct. But, you know, people said this could never happen, and look how far we’ve come. And we’re confident that if it passes the Senate, we can also do the same push in the House. I mean, this is commonsense, right? The military was against segregating—desegregation. It was against gays in the military. It was against women. And it always said, "That will affect good order and discipline; we absolutely can’t go there." And look what happened in retrospect: They were happy; it’s been a more positive change. We say the same thing. They don’t need to be fearful of this change.
AMY GOODMAN: Let me turn to Senator John McCain, who has opposed the change. He said, quote, "I’m the only member of the United States Senate who was actually in command, OK? And I know what command authority is all about. So if you take it away from those commanders, you will impair battle efficiency. And I respect Senator Gillibrand’s views and her advocacy, but I do not believe that she has the background or experience on this issue. I do," said Senator McCain.
AMY ZIERING: Forty-nine rapes a day, zero prosecutions—how is that efficient? Who is it efficient for? I don’t—I don’t really understand the logic of that. We are not asking for all crimes to be taken outside the chain of command. Any crime having to do with mission readiness and mission execution still stays within the chain of command. That’s 37 crimes which the commander is in charge of, which he should be in charge of. He needs to know what, you know, his troops are doing, that if it has anything to do with battle readiness, anything to do with command climate, those are still under his jurisdiction. We’re just asking for certain crimes, which he’s neither trained nor qualified to prosecute, to be taken out of his hands.
We’ve talked to many commanders who have said, "Please, we don’t want to be adjudicating these crimes. We’re not qualified. We’re not trained. We don’t really understand them that well. We know too many of the people involved. Take—take this away from us so we can actually command more efficiently." We’ve heard the same from other commanders, is what I’d say to Congress—Senator John McCain. And I’d also say that it’s not working. Like, if what he said to me was true, "Look, we can take care of it; we’ve done a good job," I’d be fine with it, I’d be happy. I want the military to do its job well. We just saw it’s absolutely, patently not true. These numbers are astronomical, and this system is flawed and broken, and there has to be this change.
AMY GOODMAN: You had all—almost all the women senators supporting this, but what about Senator McCaskill?
AMY ZIERING: Senator McCaskill is not supporting this bill, but the positive thing is that 17 out of 20 women senators are. And we have two undecided, so the only—there’s only one woman senator who’s not in favor of this change.
AMY GOODMAN: And why isn’t she, Senator Claire McCaskill?
AMY ZIERING: I’m not exactly sure. I mean, it puzzles us, honestly. She has said that she doesn’t—she would rather see it with—she’s as skeptical of military prosecutors as she is of military commanders, and she would rather kind of keep the system as is. And we say to that, look, the system, as is, is just not working. We’ve got to look at trying something different.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: If we can, I’d like to go to another clip from The Invisible War of the Marine barracks in Washington, D.C., just a mile from the Capitol.
THERESA VERDERBER-PHILLIPS: When you report something, you better be prepared for the repercussions.
CAPT. DEBRA DICKERSON: If a man gets accused of rape, it’s a setup. The woman’s lying.
REBECCA CATAGNUS: I could choose to report it, but if I wasn’t—you know, if they found that what I was saying wasn’t to be truthful, then that I would be reduced in rank.
ALLISON GILL: You could lose your rate, you could lose rank, you could lose your school, if you file a false report. So do you want to file a report?
CHRISTINA JONES: Even with the rape kit and everything, and the person—my friend catching him raping me, they still don’t believe me.
TANDY FINK: I reported it two different times to my squad leader. And he told me that there was nothing he can do about it because I didn’t have any proof.
ANDREA WERNER: They actually did charge me with adultery. I wasn’t married; he was.
TIA CHRISTOPHER: They took me before my lieutenant commander. He says, "You think this is funny?" And I say, "What do you mean?" He’s like, "Is this all a joke to you?" I was like, "What do you mean?" And he goes, "You’re the third girl to report rape this week. Are you guys like all in cahoots? You think this is a game?"
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: That was a clip from The Invisible War. It wasn’t about the Marine barracks in Washington, D.C.; of the repercussions that women felt once they attempted to report the assaults. Amy Ziering, the producer, your final comments?
AMY ZIERING: I just encourage everyone to please encourage their senators to vote for the MJIA, which is Senator Gillibrand’s bill. It’s the only bill that will actually reduce these numbers of the epidemic of rape in our U.S. military, and it’s just so important. Otherwise, we’re just going to have the status quo back in place, and I’ll be back here in a decade talking about this again, which I really don’t want to be. There’s no reason to be afraid of this change. We can do it.
AMY GOODMAN: Amy Ziering, I want to thank you very much for being with us. Congratulations on yet another award for the Oscar-nominated film, The Invisible War. Amy Ziering is the producer. Last night it won the audience commendation from the Puma Impact Awards that was put together by BRITDOC. This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, a Mexican nun joins us, who’s been crusading against the war on drugs and for the missing in Mexico. Stay with us.