By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A U.S. Senate panel on Tuesday approved a controversial plan to improve the military's handling of sexual assault cases, backing draft legislation that would let prosecutors, rather than a victim's commander, decide if a sex offense should go to trial.
The proposal was one of a dozen sexual assault-related measures endorsed by the personnel panel of the Senate Armed Services Committee for inclusion in the National Defense Authorization Act, the annual legislation that sets policy for the U.S. military.
Approval of the proposal set the stage for a battle over the issue, which is opposed by senior defense officials, as the legislation makes its way through the full Armed Services Committee and then the entire Senate in the coming weeks.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat who chairs the personnel subcommittee, said the draft legislation "comprehensively addresses the issue of sexual assaults in the military." Gillibrand has been a prominent proponent of removing sexual assault prosecution from the chain of command.
Senator Lindsay Graham, the senior Republican on the panel, said lawmakers had agreed on 90 percent of the proposals but would take their disagreements over the remaining 10 percent of the measure to the full committee.
"The areas of disagreement are on taking the chain of command out of sexual assault cases," he said. "I don't think you ever quite solve a problem in the military without the chain of command buying into it and being held more accountable."
Senator Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat who chairs the Armed Services Committee, has said he opposed Gillibrand's proposal and would offer an alternative that would provide for a review of any decision not to prosecute a sexual assault.
"It would be an alternative approach which those of us who favor it think is much more effective, frankly, to removing it from the chain of command, since you've got to rely on the chain of command to change the culture," Levin told reporters.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel has also opposed taking sexual assault prosecution decisions out of the chain of command. So have the military service chiefs, who say commanders should be held more accountable, not less, and removing responsibility from the chain of command would undermine order and discipline.
However, critics and victims charge that failure to deal with sexual assault in the military is a greater threat to order and discipline, and the armed services have repeatedly failed to address the issue effectively.
An annual Pentagon study recently estimated that unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, jumped by 37 percent in 2012 to 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
The report came amid a spate of high-profile military sexual assault cases, including some involving personnel who were specifically tasked with trying to prevent it.
The Army said on Tuesday that Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Miley, commander of the 49th Missile Defense Battalion at Fort Greely, Alaska, had been suspended following a misconduct investigation that began January 9.
Army officials declined to elaborate on the nature of the misconduct, but Alaska's senators have urged the military to investigate allegations that Miley had condoned adultery and fraternization at the base.
(Additional reporting by Patricia Zengerle; editing by Christopher Wilson)