Sexual assault policies in the US Air Force are under Senate scrutiny – as are the senior Air Force lawyers who according to a Politico report were working against a Senate proposal designed to overhaul the Air Force’s policy on sexual assault matters.
A letter obtained by POLITICO shows Lt. Gen. Richard Harding, the Air Force judge advocate general, and Col. Jeffrey Rockwell, urging their fellow military lawyers to take sides against a Senate amendment expected to come up for a floor vote before Thanksgiving that removes the command chain from major criminal prosecutions.
“Please read, absorb and share with your commanders and media types wherever you are located. This will truly make a difference,” Harding wrote earlier this month to the Air Force JAG Corps before introducing Rockwell’s arguments against the proposal being offered by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.).
Rockwell then walked through the reasons why the current military justice system does the job in rooting out bad actors and defends Pentagon leaders’ stance of “zero tolerance” against sexual assault in the ranks.
“Some outside an organization may view the words as trite, but only words from a commander will truly affect airman behavior,” Rockwell wrote. “’Because the commander said so’ actually and effectively sets a command expectation, establishes a military duty and reflects a culture that exists nowhere else in society. This is real power with historical success.”
Pentagon officials haven’t been shy before about stating their opposition to Gillibrand’s proposal during public testimony on Capitol Hill and in private letters and meetings with leaders of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
But Susan Burke, a Baltimore-based private attorney who has defended several military sexual assault victims, said that Harding and Rockwell go too far in suggesting a lobbying campaign from lower-level Air Force lawyers.
Burke on Monday asked the Pentagon’s inspector general to launch an investigation of the two lawyers, saying their letter marks a “clear violation of the provisions and spirit of Air Force” rules.
“Due to the importance of the issue of proper adjudication of sexual assault in the military, it is imperative that leaders such as General Harding and Colonel Rockwell refrain from issuing their support for or against legislation on such a divisive and important issue,” Burke wrote.
Air Force spokeswoman Jill Whitesell said the service found no legal problems with the lawyers’ remarks, which were included in the Oct. 16 edition of a weekly online newsletter to the JAG Corps.
“His intent is to ensure [Air Force] leaders and commanders are current on the issue and communicate it properly and clearly to interested public, nothing more,” she said, noting the letter reflected previous Air Force and Pentagon positions on the legislation.
A spokeswoman for the Pentagon IG declined comment.
Nancy Parrish, president of the victim advocacy group Protect our Defenders, also pounced on the letter, calling it a “serious issue” that “needs to be investigated.”