By Patricia Zengerle
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The chairman of the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committee on Wednesday released letters from Pentagon officials defending the military's system for handling sexual assault cases, fending off a fellow Democratic senator's plan for sweeping changes to deal with the rise in sexual assaults.
The letters released by Senator Carl Levin raised arguments against a plan from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would shift the decision on whether to pursue sexual assault cases from the victim's commander to an independent military prosecutor.
Gillibrand's plan was rejected by the Armed Services Committee last month but is now publicly supported by 43 members of the 100-member Senate.
Gillibrand will submit her plan to the full Senate as an amendment to the annual defense spending bill. She has said she is confident it will get at least the 51 votes it would need to pass.
In one of the letters released by Levin, Admiral James Winnefeld, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, cited dozens of cases within the past two years in which civilian prosecutors declined to prosecute sexual assault cases, but military commanders pursued them, resulting in convictions.
In another, Army Brigadier General Richard Gross, the legal counsel to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. allies such as Britain and Australia had removed responsibility for prosecution from the chain of command, but had done so to better protect the rights of the accused, not the victims.
"The letters give some significant evidence ... as to why the committee got this thing right in not removing that weapon from the commanders," Levin told reporters on a conference call.
A spokesman for Gillibrand said the problem remained that many victims of sexual assault do not feel comfortable going to their commanders, often because they fear retaliation.
"Victim after victim has spoken out about the bias and conflicts of interest in the current broken chain of command system that has re-victimized them when they do come forward," Gillibrand spokesman Glen Caplin said.
Debate over the military's sexual assault problem has been intense since a spate of high-profile cases and a Pentagon study in May showing incidences of unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, were up 37 percent in 2012 from 2011.
Gillibrand has failed to win over most Senate Republicans and some Democrats including Levin, who argues that commanders have an important role to play in changing the military culture.
The Armed Services Committee - and Levin - back several steps to improve prosecution of military sexual assault. Among other things, its plan would let commanders decide whether to bring cases to trial but would add levels of automatic review by more senior leaders.
Pentagon leaders strongly oppose Gillibrand's approach, saying they fear it would weaken the chain of command.
(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Vicki Allen and Eric Beech)