Earlier this month, Wall Street Journal columnist James Taranto alleged that Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) was waging a "war on men" in her efforts to combat sexual assault in the military. This "political campaign" he said, was "becoming an effort to criminalize male sexuality," and had emerged in McCaskill's decision to place a "permanent hold" on the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms to be vice commander of the Air Force Space Command.
In a column at the Daily Beast on Thursday, McCaskill responded to Taranto's "war on men" accusations. She explained that her opposition to Helms' nomination was based the lieutenant's controversial decision to grant clemency to Air Force Capt. Matthew Herrera, despite a court-martial conviction on charges of aggravated sexual assault.
McCaskill began by taking aim at Taranto's "lengthy and spirited defense of a convicted sex offender," accusing him of having a "disregard for the severity of sexual assault." Herrera was found guilty of taking off a female officer's pants and touching her genitals while she slept. Taranto described the ensuing trial as a "he-said/she-said" proceeding, and suggested Helms had rightfully decided that Herrera "was a more reliable witness than the accuser," thereby opting to vacate the verdict handed down by a court-martial jury selected by Helms herself.
That determination wasn't Taranto's to decide, McCaskill wrote, and shouldn't be Helms' either.
"Under current military law, Lt. General Helms had the power to substitute her own judgment for that of the jury’s. She ultimately did so, vacating the jury's guilty verdict against Capt. Herrera, against the advice of her own legal counsel, and despite not having attended the trial," the senator wrote. "What she did was not a crime. But it was an error, and a significant one. I’m hopeful that our work this year will remove the ability of a commander to substitute their judgment, and sometimes also their ingrained bias, for that of a jury who has heard the witnesses and made a determination of their credibility and the facts of the case."
"[I]t’s important that we remember who the real victim is in all this," McCaskill continued. "The woman who was brave enough to come forward in a difficult culture and environment, sit in a witness stand, and tell the story of her sexual assault. A woman who then watched the decision of a jury -- a jury that heard the testimony offered by both the victim and the defense -- overturned by someone who was never even in the courtroom."
McCaskill and other senators are currently debating legislation to address the increasingly prominent issue of sexual assault in the military. She and others have argued that the armed services need to take such cases outside the chain of command and have specially trained military prosecutors handle them instead. They've argued that this is a reasonable step, as reports have found that commanders in charge of sex assault cases often know the alleged perpetrator of the crime. Victims who do come forward often also report that they receive resistance and retaliation for their actions.