By Phil Stewart and Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers berated America's senior military officers over sexual assault in the armed forces on Tuesday, but top brass insisted a plan in Congress to take the cases out of the hands of commanders would go too far by weakening their authority.
The Senate Armed Services Committee called the military chiefs to an unusual full-panel hearing on sexual assault legislation after a wave of scandals and new Pentagon data showing a steep rise in unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, that have deeply embarrassed the military. Lawmakers are trying to impose change with new legislation.
"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases," said Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a leader of the effort to change how the military handles sexual assault cases.
Republican Senator John McCain said he could not "overstate my disgust and disappointment" over the continued reports of sexual misconduct.
In a rare joint appearance in Congress, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, top uniformed officers of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard, and the top attorneys from each service listened silently at a long witness table.
Twenty witnesses appeared at the all-day hearing, in which the commanders admitted they had lost focus on the problem of sexual assault during 12 years of war.
"Nothing saddens me more than knowing that this cancer exists in our ranks," said General Mark Welsh, the chief of staff of the Air Force.
The hearing underscored how the longstanding problem of sexual assault appears to have exhausted lawmakers' patience.
The Senate and House of Representatives are each considering several bills on the issue, some of which are likely to become law as part of the annual defense spending bill.
The chiefs appeared to lend their support to an April proposal by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that would curb a key power of commanders - their ability to alter verdicts in courts-martial for major crimes like murder or sexual assault.
But they objected to Gillibrand's proposal - co-sponsored by one fifth of Senate's 100 members, including four Republicans - which would take responsibility for prosecuting sex crimes out of the victim's chain of command altogether and give it to special prosecutors.
"The legislation ... is absolutely the wrong direction to go," said General James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.
General Raymond Odierno, the Army chief of staff, cautioned against any rush to overhaul the military justice system, saying "we cannot simply legislate our way out of this problem."
Military commanders say that taking authority over sexual assault cases away from the chain of command would undermine the essential authority of military officers, weakening discipline and potentially risking security.
"Commanders must have the ability to hold airmen accountable for their behavior. This is what enables a highly disciplined force, which increases the lethality of our weapons systems, and improves the safety of our airmen," said Colonel Jeannie Leavitt, the first female wing commander in the U.S. Air Force, during testimony by a panel of four commanders.
Victims' advocates accused the military of clinging to a problematic status quo rather than properly acknowledging the extent of the problem and the pain of victims.
"Service women practically become numb to sexual harassment because it is so common," said Anu Bhagwati, a retired Marine Corps captain who is now the executive director of the activist group Service Women's Action Network.
The House of Representatives on Tuesday passed a bill named after a woman Navy member who was raped twice that pushes the Department of Veterans Affairs to update its regulations to better serve victims of military sexual trauma.
At the end of the hearing, Senator Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services committee, promised that the committee would take "significant" action on sexual abuse in the military.
UNWANTED SEXUAL CONTACT
A study the Defense Department released in May estimated that cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 cases, from 19,000 the previous year.
Lawmakers scorned top brass for failing to break down that data.
"Unwanted sexual contact is everything from somebody looking at you sideways when they shouldn't to someone pushing you up against the wall and brutally raping you," said Democratic Senator Claire McCaskill, a former sex crimes prosecutor.
Outrage in recent months has been fanned by a series of alleged sexual assaults, including accusations leveled against officials whose job it was to defend victims of sexual assault.
In one case, a senior U.S. military commander in Europe set aside the conviction of an Air Force officer, throwing out his one-year prison term and dismissal from the service.
"It's almost intolerable that we can continue on this current path by allowing the commanders to be in charge at the level they are," said Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia.
Gillibrand said there was still discrimination in the armed forces and that not every commander wanted women in the military.
"Not every commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and rape," she said.
(Editing by Alistair Bell and Jim Loney)