Commentary Violence

Obama, Hagel Offer Lip Service on Military Sexual Assault

Adele M. Stan

Judging by their words, you’d think they’d be willing to stop at nothing to end the epidemic of sexual assault in the military. But you would be wrong.

Two days before President Barack Obama delivered a commencement address to the class of 2013 at the U.S. Naval Academy, and three days before Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel addressed graduates of West Point, news broke of yet another in a series of sex crimes against women in the military. A sergeant on the staff of the U.S. Army’s elite academy was accused of surreptitiously videotaping female cadets as they used showers and bathrooms.

By the words both men uttered, you’d think they’d be willing to stop at nothing to end the epidemic of sexual assault against members of the armed forces by their own comrades. But you would be wrong. Neither Obama nor Hagel has signed on to the one sure means of stemming the crisis: Take the reporting and adjudication of these crimes out of the chain of command.

“Sexual harassment and sexual assault in the military are a profound betrayal of sacred oaths and sacred trusts. This scourge must be stamped out. We are all accountable and responsible for ensuring that this happens,” Hagel said to the graduating class at West Point on Saturday. “We cannot fail the Army or America. We cannot fail each other, and we cannot fail the men and women that we lead.”

Since Hagel took the helm at the Pentagon earlier this year, the scandal of widespread sexual assault committed by members of the military has dominated his term. A lieutenant in charge of the Air Force sexual assault prevention unit was charged with sexual battery of a civilian in a Virginia parking lot, an Army sergeant in charge of the the sexual assault reporting unit at Fort Hood was investigated for abusive sexual behavior, and news broke of a string of sexual assaults by military recruiters against potential recruits.

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And these are just the news reports that broke this month, bookending the release of a Pentagon report that estimated a 37 percent surge over the previous year’s estimates of sexual assaults against members of the military by their own comrades.

But when asked, after the release of the damning 2013 Department of Defense Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military, if he would support taking the prosecution of sexual assault complaints out of commanders’ hands, Hagel bristled. “That would just weaken the system,” he said on May 7, according to Wired’s Spencer Ackerman. Since then, Hagel seems to have softened his position, telling Pentagon reporters that nothing is “off the table,” but is withholding judgment, according to Ackerman, until a panel appointed by Congress makes its recommendations.

Likewise, President Obama made a big show in his address to the Naval Academy of condemning the culture of assault that apparently pervades the armed forces, but he’s yet to weigh in on the chain-of-command question.

After noting the lack of trust Americans have for most institutions, Obama said:

Our military remains the most trusted institution in America…And yet, we must acknowledge that even here, even in our military, we’ve seen how the misconduct of some can have effects that ripple far and wide. In our digital age, a single image from the battlefield of troops falling short of their standards can go viral and endanger our forces and undermine our efforts to achieve security and peace. Likewise, those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that make our military strong. That’s why we have to be determined to stop these crimes, because they’ve got no place in the greatest military on Earth.

But if the commander-in-chief wanted to prove his commitment to ending the military’s rape crisis, he could express his support for a bill proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would make long-overdue changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, including a system that would take the prosecution of sexual crimes away from the commander of the accused. While full of bluster on the crisis, the president has yet to endorse Gillibrand’s solution, or suggest one of his own.

Even when the accused is not a victim’s superior officer, experience has shown that the accused’s superior officer—who has jurisdiction in such matters—is often inclined to downplay the accusations made against his or her charge. And then there’s the authority currently held by commanders to overturn guilty verdicts rendered against perpetrators, as Air Force Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin did earlier this year, when one of his pilots was found guilty of aggravated sexual assault. As Roll Call noted on March 5:

Air Force News reported that the former Aviano Air Base, Italy, inspector general convicted in November of sexual assault will return to active duty and could pin on his next rank of colonel after an unusual Feb. 26 decision to throw out the case by the commander of the 3rd Air Force.

Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) has proposed legislation that would end commanders’ prerogative to overturn guilty verdicts, but it doesn’t deal with the larger problem of putting an end to military rape culture. Having a special prosecutor for sex crimes (and other crimes that are not specific to military operations)—one who works beyond the control of commanders—would.

U.S. allies seem to have already figured this out: The armed forces of the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada, and Australia, to name a few, have military justice systems that incorporate the kind of changes Gillibrand seeks.

Those who oppose taking the prosecution of sex crimes from the hands of commanders often claim that the chain of command must maintain control of all matters of military justice for the sake of “good order and discipline”—as if it were a natural thing for members of an orderly and disciplined force to prey on their comrades with impunity. What a cruel joke that must seem to the thousands—an estimated 26,000 in 2012 alone, according to the Pentagon—who have been assaulted by their fellows in the ranks.

Others suggest that resistance to changing the code speaks to a culture in which tradition is sanctified. But a tradition of unpunished assault in a rape-laced culture is nothing to hold sacred.

The military’s decades-long sexual assault epidemic, taking place in an atmosphere in which victims are afraid to report the crimes committed against them, suggests that the commanders have failed at the job of doing justice for those set upon by the sexual predators in their charge. It’s time they were relieved of command at that particular post.

Analysis Politics

New Hampshire Sen. Kelly Ayotte’s Record on Women’s Health at Center of Heated Race

Ally Boguhn

Sen. Kelly Ayotte's defenders have made claims about her commitment to "strengthening women's health" through action on various measures; reproductive rights advocates point out, however, that most of these measures would have done more harm than good.

The tight race between incumbent Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) and challenger Gov. Maggie Hassan (D) could help determine which party takes control of the U.S. Senate after the November elections. In recent months, a key point of contention has emerged among Ayotte’s supporters and critics: the senator’s record on reproductive rights and women’s health.

Planned Parenthood Votes released an ad in April claiming Ayotte is “bad for New Hampshire women,” signaling the continuation of the heated narrative in the lead-up to the election. Ayotte’s defenders have responded to the accusations with claims of her commitment to “strengthening women’s health” through action on various measures; reproductive rights advocates point out, however, that most of these measures would have done more harm than good.

“For months, Senator Kelly Ayotte has followed party bosses, refusing to fill the Supreme Court vacancy. And for years, Ayotte has waited for an opportunity to push for someone to end access to safe, legal abortion and overturn Roe v. Wade,” claims the Planned Parenthood Votes ad, before playing an August 2010 clip of Ayotte advocating for the Supreme Court to overturn Roe. “For New Hampshire women, the consequences of letting Kelly Ayotte play politics with the Constitution could last a lifetime.”

The $400,000 ad buy, slated to run on broadcast and cable in New Hampshire, has been Planned Parenthood Votes’ first on-air ad targeting a Senate race in the 2016 election cycle. The organization, a national independent expenditure political committee, is criticizing Ayotte for claiming to protect women but failing to protect reproductive rights, also drawing on her pledge to obstruct filling the vacant Supreme Court seat in the aftermath of Justice Antonin Scalia’s death.

“Kelly Ayotte may try to paint herself as pro-woman, but her record tells a very different story. Every chance she’s gotten she’s voted to ‘defund’ Planned Parenthood and cut women off from essential health care like birth control and breast and cervical cancer screenings,” said Deirdre Schifeling, executive director of Planned Parenthood Votes, in a statement on the organization’s new ad. “She has been advocating for years to ban women’s access to safe, legal abortion, and it’s clear she now sees her chance in the Supreme Court process. Kelly Ayotte is refusing to do her job, and abdicating her constitutional duty, in order to push an extreme agenda that no one in New Hampshire wants.”

Ayotte’s campaign manager, Jon Kohan, meanwhile, defended the senator’s record on women’s health and rights in a press release. He wrote, “Kelly’s long record of standing up for New Hampshire women and families is clear, and she cares deeply about ensuring all women have access to health services.” The release included a bulleted list providing examples of Ayotte’s work “strengthening women’s health care,” “supporting working women,” and “protecting domestic or sexual assault victims.”

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The claims may be familiar to those following the New Hampshire race. After Hassan announced her candidacy in October, for example, One Nation, an issue-advocacy organization that does not need to disclose where their funding comes from and is affiliated with Karl Rove’s American Crossroads super PAC, pushed a 17-day, $1.4 million ad campaign touting Ayotte’s record on women’s health.

Hassan, on the other hand, has the support of organizations such as EMILY’s List, whose stated mission is to help elect pro-choice women into office. After endorsing the governor in the Senate race, the group added Ayotte to its “On Notice” list for “voting for anti-woman legislation and standing in the way of policies that give working families a fair shot.”

But with both sides of the race simultaneously claiming opposing positions on whether Ayotte has been good for women and reproductive rights, what is the truth?

Ayotte has made no secret of her desire to defund Planned Parenthood, and she “has shown support for defunding the organization or opposition to continued funding in at least six votes,” according to PolitiFact, though some of those votes were procedural. Though she famously chided Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) for attempting to shut down the government over his crusade to strip the reproductive health provider of money in the wake of anti-choice front group Center for Medical Progress’ deceptively edited videos, it was because she didn’t view his methods as a winning strategy for accomplishing that goal—not because she didn’t believe in the cause.

In a letter to Cruz, Ayotte told the Republican presidential candidate that she too is “deeply disturbed by” CMP’s videos and doesn’t believe Planned Parenthood should have federal funding.”This callous disregard for the dignity of human life is heinous, and I do not believe taxpayer dollars should be used to fund a private organization that performs hundreds of thousands of abortions each year and harvests the body parts of unborn children,” wrote Ayotte. She went on to ask what Cruz’s “strategy to succeed in actually defunding Planned Parenthood” really was, given that their mutual efforts to redirect the organization’s funding to other clinics had failed.

Planned Parenthood does not use its federal funding to provide abortions; its fetal tissue donation program has been cleared of wrongdoing in multiple state and federal investigations. And despite claims from conservatives, including Ayotte, that other facilities could provide Planned Parenthood’s patients with health care should the organization lose funding, the Guttmacher Institute found that “credible evidence suggests this is unlikely. In some areas, Planned Parenthood is the sole safety-net provider of contraceptive care.”

“Our analysis shows unequivocally that Planned Parenthood plays a major role in delivering publicly supported contraceptive services and supplies to women who are in need of such care nationwide,” the Guttmacher Institute concluded.

Ayotte has also supported numerous other anti-choice restrictions and legislation, including a 2015 20-week abortion ban based on the medically unfounded claim that fetuses feel pain at this point in pregnancy.

According to NPR, Ayotte has “been a hero to anti-abortion activists since 2005, when as New Hampshire attorney general she defended a parental notification law all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.” The law required doctors to notify parents of minors seeking an abortion at least 48 hours prior to the procedure, and contained no exceptions for the health of the patient. The Court ultimately ruled against Ayotte, affirming that states may not enact abortion laws that don’t protect women’s health and safety.

National Right to Life found that the New Hampshire senator voted “with” the anti-choice organization in all 14 of the scored votes from 2012 to 2015 it examined.

In 2012, Ayotte co-sponsored the failed “Blunt Amendment,” which would have allowed exemptions from the Affordable Care Act’s birth control benefit for any employers or insurers that had moral objections to providing contraceptive coverage to their employees. And in a 2014 commentary for the Wall Street Journal, Ayotte and Sen. Deb Fischer (R-NE) defended the Supreme Court’s ruling in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, which grants some employers the right to deny contraceptive coverage to their staff based on the owner’s religious beliefs, falsely claiming that the ruling did “not take away women’s access to birth control.”

Ayotte’s campaign is quick to point to legislation sponsored by the senator that would have allowed over-the-counter contraception as proof that she cares about women’s health. Reproductive health advocates, however, called Ayotte’s Allowing Greater Access to Safe and Effective Contraception Act a “sham” when it was introduced in 2015. Though the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) generally supports over-the-counter birth control, the organization’s president Dr. Mark S. DeFrancesco, said in a statement that Ayotte’s measure “would actually make more women have to pay for their birth control, and for some women, the cost would be prohibitive.”

Paid leave is yet another issue in which Ayotte has put forth legislation in the name of helping women. Ayotte introduced the Family Friendly and Workplace Flexibility Act of 2015 in March of that year, claiming it would “allow greater flexibility for workers who are looking to better balance their work-life demands.” Analysis by ThinkProgress, however, found that the measure “could weaken already weak rules that require workers to be paid extra for working extra hours, thus ensuring that workweeks don’t grow out of control and employees are compensated fairly.”

Earlier in 2015, Ayotte signed on as a co-sponsor of the Working Families Flexibility Act. According to a statement from the National Partnership for Women and Families (NPWF) condemning the legislation, the act claimed to “give hourly workers more flexibility and time with their loved ones by allowing them to choose paid time off, rather than time-and-a-half wages, as compensation for working more than 40 hours in one week.” However, the bill did “not promote family friendly or flexible workplaces,” explained the nonprofit organization in a fact sheet. “Instead, it would erode hourly workers’ ability to make ends meet, plan for family time, and have predictability, stability, and true flexibility at work.”

Ayotte’s record on equal pay has been similarly debunked by advocates. One of the policies highlighted by Ayotte’s campaign in the wake of Planned Parenthood Votes’ ad was the senator’s introduction of the Gender Advancement In Pay (GAP) Act in September 2015, which she reintroduced ahead of Equal Pay Day this April. The measure was meant to make clear that “employers must pay men and women equal wages for equal work, without reducing the opportunity for employers to reward merit,” according to a press release from Ayotte’s office upon the initial release of the bill.

Critics argued that Ayotte’s bill was nothing other than an election-year stunt. New Hampshire state Sen. Donna Soucy (D-Manchester) told NH1 News that Ayotte’s move was an attempt to look “for some cover … in an effort to be more in line with” New Hampshire voters, after Ayotte voted against other fair pay measures. However, Soucy said, the legislation didn’t really address the issue of pay equity. “Sen. Ayotte’s bill attempts to create paycheck fairness but doesn’t in fact do so because employers could preclude their employees from discussing what they make with their fellow employees,” claimed Soucy.

Similar arguments were made when Ayotte co-sponsored another equal pay measure, the Workplace Advancement Act, with Sens. Deb Fischer (R-NE), Susan Collins (R-ME), Joni Ernst (R-IA), Thad Cochran (R-MS), and Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) in April 2015. Though the legislation would ban employers from retaliating against their staff, it failed to garner support from Democrats. According to the National Women’s Law Center, the bill would have done “more harm than good” as it “entirely [ignored] the many loopholes and inadequacies in current equal pay laws and simply [stated] that pay discrimination ‘violates existing law.'”

Their arguments are bolstered by Ayotte’s repeated votes against the federal Paycheck Fairness Act, though as Politifact again pointed out, some of these votes were procedural and not against the bill itself. Ayotte did cast one vote in favor of ending debate on the measure and advancing it; the fact-checking site noted, though, that Ayotte’s office reportedly did so in the ultimately denied hopes of changing the bill.

Had it passed, the legislation would have updated the Equal Pay Act of 1963 to include protections such as prohibiting retaliation against employees who share their salary and strengthening penalties for those who violate the law. Ayotte claims she voted against the measure because it “could reduce the ability of employers to award merit pay for good performance and limit the opportunity for women to have flexible work schedules,” according to a press release on the matter.

Speaking at a town hall event in 2013, Ayotte had previously justified her vote against equal pay legislation by asserting that it “created a lot of additional burdens that would … make it more difficult for job creators to create jobs.” The New Hampshire senator went on to add that there were already laws in place that could help address the issue.

There are, however, some examples of Ayotte supporting and introducing legislation that would help women. In June 2015, Ayotte co-sponsored the Pregnant Workers Fairness Act to protect pregnant people from workplace discrimination. Though the legislation never came to a vote, it would have helped “end … discrimination and promote healthy pregnancies and the economic security of pregnant women and their families,” according to the NPWF. That same year, the New Hampshire senator co-sponsored the Protect Access to Lifesaving Screenings (PALS) Act, bipartisan legislation that would have safeguarded access to free annual mammograms for women ages 40 to 74. Ayotte co-sponsored the bipartisan Campus Accountability and Safety Act in 2014 and 2015, which, according to Democratic New York Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s website, would “protect students and boost accountability and transparency at colleges and universities” when it comes to sexual assault. Ayotte also co-sponsored the Combating Military Sexual Assault Act of 2013 to address the issue in the military.

Overall, Ayotte has signed onto or supported numerous pieces of legislation that at face value seem to promote reproductive health and women’s rights. Further examination shows, however, that—with a few exceptions—they largely failed to hold up to scrutiny. While Ayotte’s campaign alleges that many of her measures would have helped women and families, analysis suggests that her conservative solutions to addressing these issues often would have made the problems worse. This, coupled with the senator’s fierce anti-choice advocacy, will no doubt keep this portion of Ayotte’s record under tight observation as November’s election approaches.

Analysis Violence

Hearing for Accused Planned Parenthood Shooter Overlooks His Extreme Anti-Abortion Views

Jessica Mason Pieklo

After a full day of testimony, which included an investigator's account that Dear had stopped at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) before moving on to the Planned Parenthood, it was clear that neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to talk about the central issue of Robert Lewis Dear Jr.’s case: anti-choice rhetoric and violence.

We won’t know until mid-May at the earliest whether the State of Colorado considers Robert Lewis Dear Jr. legally competent to stand trial for the murder of three people at a Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood last November. Thursday was the first round of Dear’s competency hearing as to his mental state and whether he should stand trial or face commitment at a state mental hospital. But after a full day of testimony, which included an investigator’s account that Dear had stopped at a crisis pregnancy center (CPC) before moving on to the Planned Parenthood, it was clear that neither the prosecution nor the defense wanted to talk about the central issue of Dear’s case: anti-choice rhetoric and violence.

According to Colorado law, a defendant is competent to stand trial so long as they do not have a mental disability or developmental disability that prevents them from having the “present ability” to consult with their attorney and a “reasonable degree of rational understanding in order to assist the defense,” or “prevents the defendant from having a rational and factual understanding of proceedings.”

A person could have a mental illness or a disorder that produces hallucinations or exaggerated thoughts, but so long as they understand what’s happening with regard to the charges against them, and have the ability to defend themselves if they choose, the law in Colorado says that’s enough to go to trial.

So do sincerely held religious beliefs and a paranoid belief the federal government is persecuting Christians rise to the level of a diagnosable delusional disorder—the kind of mental illness that meets one prong of the competency test for Dear but alone is not enough to declare a person legally incompetent to stand trial? What about Dear’s unwillingness to cooperate with his state-appointed attorney because he wanted to assert his constitutional right to self-representation? These were just a handful of questions at issue during the hearing for prosecutors, defense attorneys, and state mental health experts.

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Prosecutors argued Dear clearly and methodically charted out his attack on the Colorado Springs Planned Parenthood. Detective Jerry Schiffielbein, who was the primary investigator tasked with interviewing Dear, testified that Dear made several stops to try and locate the Planned Parenthood at issue, including one outside a CPC, where he asked a postal worker if the CPC was, in fact, the Planned Parenthood clinic he was looking for.

It turns out the Planned Parenthood was just down the road.

Prosecutors portrayed Dear as a man with deeply held religious and political convictions. They noted Dear is college-educated, though acknowledged his history of run-ins with law enforcement, including one incident of alleged sexual assault that Dear described to investigators as a “false rape.” Prosecutors noted that Dear had an issue with women; he referred to them, they said, as “honeypots” who were his “weakness.”

Dear’s political beliefs may be extreme, prosecutors argued—among them include the idea that President Barack Obama is the Antichrist and that martial law is imminent—but they should not disqualify Dear from standing trial. (Coincidentally, as noted by the medical professionals hired to evaluate Dear, radio personalities like conservatives Glenn Beck and Alex Jones say the same thing.)

But Dear’s attorneys worked on a different picture, calling forensic psychologist Jackie Grimmett to offer her opinion that Dear was delusional and not able to stand trial. Grimmett testified it was her opinion that Dear was not competent to do so, in part because he inconsistently shared information with his state-appointed attorney. At this point, Dear spoke out, saying “I’m going to represent myself. It’s my constitutional right. It’s my life on the line.”

Grimmett also testified that she believed Dear to be a “spiritual” man and was reluctant to “pathologize” Dear’s religious beliefs, but noted his religious sense of persecution was intertwined with his deep political convictions. That statement allowed Dear’s attorneys to try and focus her testimony on Dear’s distrust of the federal government, on his rage after the Waco siege of Branch Davidians and the Oregon militia standoff, and Dear’s desire to live off the grid.

Those beliefs, Dear’s attorneys argued, suggest Dear is irrational. And for the most part, Grimmett played along, stating it was her professional opinion that Dear’s paranoia of the federal government was so severe he lacked capacity to stand trial.

While a forensic psychologist, Grimmett acknowledged she was not certified by the American Board of Professional Psychology, the professional organization that sets standards of care and practice for the industry.

The State of Colorado called as a witness a second forensic psychologist, Thomas Gray, who had also evaluated Dear. While Gray agreed with Grimmett that Dear holds “extreme” political and religious beliefs, Gray also testified that it was clear to him that “Dear wanted to be able to dictate the scope of his defense.” Gray signed off on Grimmitt’s initial evaluation of Dear as not legally competent, though he conceded during his testimony that Dear appeared coherent, intelligent, and engaged with his defense.

What was largely overlooked during the hearing was what that “scope of defense” would be. As has been reported, Dear initially intended to plead guilty to the more than 170 counts he faces. But during Detective Schiffielbein’s testimony on the point of whether he believed Dear was competent enough to participate in his own defense, the detective testified that in recorded jail calls, Dear mentioned disagreeing with his attorneys. Dear now wants to raise a “defense of others” argument in his case, Schiffielbein said, and believes his attorneys are pushing an insanity defense over his wishes and his constitutional rights.

Defense of others is, broadly speaking, the legal argument that a crime is justified because its commission is preventing a greater evil. Anti-choice terrorist Paul Hill argued his murder of Dr. John Britton and Britton’s bodyguard was justified because it prevented Britton from performing more abortions, an act Hill equated to murder—as does Dear. Scott Roeder, during his trial for the murder of Dr. George Tiller tried to put forward a similar defense—that Roeder’s actions in assassinating Tiller were justified to prevent the “greater evil” of legal abortion.

Notably, Schiffielbein testified that Dear emotionally discussed both Gunn and Roeder as heroes, even tearing up at one point during the interview. Dear allegedly also told Schiffielbein he wanted to talk about anti-choice Olympic Park bomber Eric Rudolph, but was too tired.

Schiffielbein did not follow up on Dear’s offer to discuss Rudolph’s case.

By the end of day one of the hearing, it was no clearer how the judge would rule on Dear’s competency than at the beginning. But based on Thursday’s testimony, Dear’s beliefs and actions—the ones the defense framed as evidence that he was not competent to stand trial—are directly in line with other anti-abortion terrorists he named as admirers. And those terrorists were deemed competent to stand trial.

Dear’s hearing may not be finished yet, but it was very clear from the established testimony that not only did Dear know exactly what he was doing when he attacked Planned Parenthood, he wants a trial for the rest of the country to know about it. Not to talk about Barack Obama as the Antichrist, like his attorneys suggested, but to justify committing heinous crimes in the name of trying to stop legal abortion.

Will Dear get the venue? We won’t know until at least May 10, when his hearing is scheduled to continue. By then, anti-choice radical and Roeder associate Angel Dillard’s FACE Act trial will have concluded. Roeder, thanks to an unassociated Supreme Court ruling, will have had the opportunity to argue for a decrease in his life without parole sentence. Let’s not forget the forthcoming Summer of Mercy anniversary protest in Wichita, Kansas.

Which makes it odd that in a case where a man was arrested for shooting up a Planned Parenthood on purpose, prosecutors, defense attorneys, and even the judge spent next to no time on the role anti-abortion rhetoric played in Dear’s alleged actions. If the forensic pathologists are positing that Dear’s extreme anti-government beliefs are delusional, what about his extreme anti-abortion beliefs?

That may be the ultimate question in the Robert Dear trial, but it’s not one the State of Colorado appears that interested in answering.