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NBC "Meet the Press" - Transcript: Military Sexual Assault

Interview

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DAVID GREGORY:
President Obama had some pointed words this week when he spoke to Marines stationed at Camp Pendleton in California, saying that sexual assaults in the military undermine what the armed forces stand for. The Pentagon is preparing new rules for handling sexual assault cases, and those could come as early as this week.

Here are the numbers, and they're striking. Over 3,300 reported cases of sexual assault last year, up from the year before. But according to the Pentagon's own estimates, that take into account underreporting -- and that's a key issue, that number could be as high as 26,000 just last year. Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill is a member of the Armed Services Committee, and she's with us this morning. Senator, welcome.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL:
Thank you.

DAVID GREGORY:
Of those 26,000, this is striking as well, only 302 prosecutions, out of all of those cases, which is why this has gotten so much attention. As I said, the Pentagon is going to have some new rules for how all of this is handled. What do you expect? And will that be enough?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL:
Well, I don't know that the Pentagon is going to do enough but I know that, in our reforms, we are going to make major changes. The status quo is not acceptable. I come at this problem as a former courtroom prosecutor who handled hundreds of these cases, and the reforms that we're working on, that will become law before the end of the year, will prioritize protecting the victim. And they're going to lead to more prosecutions. The alternative that's been proposed would have less prosecutions, based on what we know about the current system.

DAVID GREGORY:
So let's get into that a little bit. The big debate here, the core of this is whether it stays within the chain of command. If you are a man or woman, and you are the victim of a sexual assault, do you report it up the chain and then a commander ultimately decides whether that should be followed up on, there should be a prosecution? Or do you have an outside prosecutor, an outside law enforcement and judicial system in effect?

Now, your colleague, Senator Gillibrand, also very active on this, she laid out the case for taking it to the outside of the chain of command, which I believe you disagree with. Let's hear from her, and get your response.

[Tape]

KIRSTEN GILLIBRAND:
What victims tell us, is they don't trust the chain of command. Even those commanders you showed a picture of, they've testified and have said, 'They don't trust us. They don't trust the chain of command.' So the problem is clear. So what we want to create is an objective review by a trained military prosecutor. Someone who is actually a lawyer. Who's trained to weight evidence, and make the fundamental decision: does the case go forward.

DAVID GREGORY:
What is the right answer, according to you?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL:
Well, the right answer is making sure these cases do go forward. And here's the problem you have. If you have outside lawyers that are making this decision, sometimes a half a continent away from the unit, if they say no, it's over.

And we know for a fact, David, over the last two years, almost 100 cases the lawyer said no. These are tough cases. A lot of prosecutors get way too focused on the one loss record, and not about getting to the bottom of it. We know that commanders are making these cases go forward, close to 100 times just in the last two years. Under the alternative, that's almost 100 victims that would not have had their day in court.

And the question is, about retaliation: Where are you going to be more protected? Are you going to be more protected in a unit where lawyers, a long way away that nobody knows, have said yes or no? Or are you going to be more protected when the commander has signed off? And one of the narratives that is misleading in this debate is the notion that you have to report to the chain of command. You do not have to report to the chain of command.

This goes outside the chain of command, with outside investigators. But at the end, the commander needs to sign off because if the commander doesn't have any role, we're letting them off the hook. And we cannot let these commanders off the hook.

DAVID GREGORY:
Senator--

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL:
We have to hold them accountable.

DAVID GREGORY:
Here's what I'm trying to understand, though. If you're dealing with a culture of underreporting, it doesn't seem like you are dealing with the fact that a man or a woman, and there are a lot of men who are subject to sexual assaults here as well, who are still not comfortable for lots of different reasons -- cultural reasons, personal reasons, embarrassment or retaliation -- you know, reporting this up.

Because these are people who have, you know, power of them in an incredibly undemocratic way, which is the nature of the military. That's why it is a chain of command. So I'm not sure, if you're keeping it within that chain of command, how you get past that culture of fear which says, "I should just keep this to myself"?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL:
Well, first of all, this is a crime that will always be underreported, no matter where it occurred, because of the nature of the crime. But if we look at our allies who changed their systems to, frankly, not protect victims, but because they were forced to to protect the perpetrators, the accused, reporting has not gone up, David, in any of those countries.

In fact, reporting has gone up much more in the United States than it has in any of the militaries that have taken it out of the chain. So the issue is why aren't victims coming forward? Retaliation? And where are you going to be more protected from retaliation? In our reform, and in the reform that Kirsten agrees with, we also are going to make retaliation a crime.
But it doesn't make any sense. Retaliation is going to magically go away just because a lawyer a long way away has made a decision, as opposed to the commander. And we know commanders are making the decision to go forward more often than the lawyers.

DAVID GREGORY:
Final point on this, Senator. As I speak to women about this issue, including my wife Beth who's a former captain in the Army, they make the point that this is as much culture-- as much as the president calls for change, this is about having more women in senior ranks in the military. That's how you deal with this problem.

As you look back on it, and you're trying to take on this problem, do you think the president missed an opportunity, naming a new secretary of defense, to not name a woman? To really put an accelerator behind causing the kind of change you think is necessary?

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL:
Listen, there's no question that, as more and more women get into the top ranks, some of the nonsense of all kinds is going to go away within the military, some of the cultural bias against women and some of the cultural bias that has allowed sexual harassment and sexual assault.

But I will tell you, we have seven women on the Armed Services Committee, and we are working together. And believe me, none of us are coddling the Pentagon on this issue, and we're not going away. We're going to stay at this every year. We're going to hold the commanders accountable. We're going to make sure that these victims have their own lawyers, their own sense of protection, and that we absolutely go after retaliation with everything we've got. I actually think that they get it, at this point. And if they don't, there's going to be seven women on the Armed Services Committee that are going to make sure they do.

DAVID GREGORY:
All right. Senator, we'll leave it there for now. A lot more to come, and we'll be staying on this story. I really appreciate your time this morning.

SEN. CLAIRE MCCASKILL:
Thanks David.

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