The Army officer nominated to lead U.S. forces in South Korea "strongly" favors keeping sexual assault cases within the military chain of command, he told a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington.
"In the military the commander is central to all that we do," Lt. Gen. Curtis Scaparrotti said today, answering a question from Sen. Carl Levin D-Mich., committee chairman.
"The commander, in fact, is held responsible for his unit, all that it does or fails to do. He or she is the most important person in establishing the climate in within that command of whatever size it is. And it's the climate, in my opinion, that is fundamental to preventing sexual harassment and sexual assault. They're key to that."
Like Scaparrotti, Levin believes the Pentagon should retain its justice system for prosecuting sexual assault cases within the chain of command, or military hierarchy. His position contrasts with legislation proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that calls for military sexual assaults to be removed from the chain of command and transferred to local civilian prosecutors.
Gillibrand also wants to set up a separate and independent prosecutor's office to handle sexual assault cases. She argues that would increase reporting and reduce the fear of retaliation.
Today's hearing was also intended to question Navy Adm. Cecil Haney on his nomination to head U.S. Strategic Command, where he would lead any U.S. nuclear combat or missile defense operations.
As for Scaparrotti's views on the military's handling of sex assault cases, which has come under increased scrutiny, he said he believes "commanders take this seriously and that we can, through training, through oversight, some of the initiatives that have been presented by members of this committee, perhaps in legislation that can also help us strengthen our ability to deal with this with our commanders in the chain of command."
"I think it's a matter of integrity," Scaparrotti told the committee. "We entrust them with great responsibility, special trust, and we entrust them with the lives of our young men and women. To not trust them with a portion of this, to me, does not follow through with what we say and then what we do. So I say that we hold them accountable, train them properly, give them the tools to do that oversight and then maintain integrity of the system."
Scaparrotti told the committee, including the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Jim Inhofe R-Okla., that he agrees with some proposed changes to the system, including commanders' losing the ability to change a charge after a court-martial, which they have today, and instead deferring to judicial authorities on appeal.
Inhofe supports l egislation by Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., that would keep military commanders involved in the prosecution of sexual assault cases.
The Armed Services Committee has voted to adopt McCaskill's proposal over Gillibrand's.
During questioning by Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., Scaparrotti said he has acted as a convening authority and decided to prosecute cases of sexual assault himself, while becoming "very involved in every aspect of this issue" during his career.
Scaparrotti told Blumenthal he couldn't "remember an occasion that I've disagreed with my judge advocate."
"As one of the initiatives that we've talked about within the services is the use of judge advocates and those who are specialized in particular crimes," Scaparrotti said, before agreeing with Blumenthal that that means "prosecutors who are specially trained and experienced with expertise in this area of sexual assault."
Blumenthal thanked Scaparrotti, but said he believes "we need to treat this crime as, in fact, a predatory, heinous crime, and that someone with the prosecutorial expertise and experience that you described may be in a better position to make these decisions."
Blumenthal, Connecticut's former attorney general, has backed Gillibrand's legislation.
The issue of sexual assaults in the military came to the forefront on Capitol Hill recently after a series of sex-crime scandals in the military earlier this year, as well as the release of a Pentagon report in May showing a 6 percent increase in the number of reported sexual assaults last year.
The hearing today also covered the issue of sequestration and the top military officers said they were worried that the impending budget cuts could hamper national security efforts, specifically deterring any aggression from North Korea.
Scaparrotti said reducing the number of aircraft carriers and U.S. warships in the Pacific could hamper military efforts to deter North Korea's Kim Jong-un from becoming more militarily aggressive.
"I think that the potential impacts of sequestration in terms of the reduction of our naval forces, which you mentioned, would likely undercut our deterrence in his eyes," Scaparrotti said. "And may lead at least to a greater possibility of miscalculation."
Scaparrotti added that North Korea has an "aggressive ballistic missile program," including "hundreds of short- and medium-range missiles," and they are developing other ballistic missiles that they see as "prestige for their regime."
"They see that as a means of extending the regime's security." Scaparrotti said. "They see it as a manner of deterrence against the United States and our influence in the region as well as the other regional partners. So I think the regime itself sees their ballistic missile system as very important."
Scaparrotti was also asked by Blumenthal about the effects of the sequester on military readiness. He answered that he could not comment specifically on Korea, but "reduction thus far in resources and the impact of sequester has resulted in the reduction of training that's being done. The troops are training every day, but they're training at a much lower level."
"They may be in the field less," Scaparrotti said. "They're likely going to the range less. They're likely qualifying with weapons systems and the vehicle systems that they have less. The pilots are likely flying less."
He added that it also "impacts morale" because it delays "their ability to reach that kind or maintain that kind of proficiency."
"It affects their morale as well and also their concern about their future in our force," Scaparrotti said.