*An earlier version of this column made incorrect statements about what elected officials know about the case.
On March 4, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, commander of the Third Air Force, overturned the rape conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson by general court martial. This decision ignited a firestorm of protests and second guessing, primarily from organized women's groups and female U.S. senators.
The bevy of senators included New York's Kirsten Gillibrand, Hawaii's Mazie Hirono, California's Barbara Boxer, New Hampshire's Jeanne Shaheen and our own Claire McCaskill. Along with the Service Women's Action Network and other advocate groups, they demanded change in the Uniform Code of Military Justice's authority to overturn courts-martial convictions, particularly those involving alleged assaults against women.
Sens. Shaheen and Boxer wrote the secretary of defense, calling the decision a travesty of justice. Sen. McCaskill sent a missive to the secretary of the Air Force, alleging "ignorance" and "malfeasance" along with a recommendation to consider removing the general from his leadership position.
As might be expected, the positions of SWAN and Protect Our Defenders, an advocacy group for military sexual assault victims, were no less critical, calling in some cases for the reporting, investigation and adjudication to be removed completely from the chain of command.
Chairing the Personnel Subcommittee of the Senate Armed Services Committee in a hearing on the issue, Sen. Gillibrand was far from complimentary, attesting that it was the opposite of order and discipline.
The Service Commanders opposed any change to Article 60 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which gives convening authorities the authority to overturn or modify verdicts. "So long as we hold our commanders accountable for everything a command does or fails to do, they must have these authorities," said Maj. Gen. Vaughn Ary, the Marine Corps staff judge advocate general.
Nevertheless, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel directed the defense general counsel to strip commanding generals and other convening authorities of their authority to void courts-martial convictions. That action will require new Congressional legislation to rewrite the "offending" section of the code before it becomes law.
I find this obvious overreaction and accompanying second guessing to one single action by a general officer convening authority not only absurd but also extremely disturbing. Many of those attacking Franklin's decision and his integrity have two things in common — a lack of knowledge of the facts involved and an affinity for cause celebre status in the media.
The Uniform Code of Military Justice, signed into law by President Harry Truman in 1950, has served the armed forces well for more than 60 years. It mirrors the civilian court system very closely, but individual complaints are investigated and disposed of far more quickly under the code.
Under the code, there are provisions established for one who believes he or she has a grievance to appear before the commanding officer or convening authority. In the Navy and the Marine Corps, the process is called request mast — the member perceiving victimhood is permitted to advance the case in writing — to be opened only by the officer with whom redress of grievance is sought.
Having been a convening authority for special and summary courts-martial, as well as member and president of both special and general courts-martial, I can attest to the integrity, dignity and attention to duty of members and convening authorities in matters of military justice. Every procedure and decision is subject to review by higher authority.
And, as to the allegation that commanders have no legal training, every convening authority has access to legal counsel, those who are commanding generals have a staff judge advocate, a lawyer on their personal staff. In a general court martial, there is a requirement for the presence of a law officer, a staff judge advocate, who rules on matters of procedure and law.
In the alleged sexual assault case under fire, I only know what is publicly available.* But I do have Franklin's opinion that he believed there to be reasonable doubt of guilt.
In his own words: "It would have been exceedingly less volatile for the Air Force and for me professionally to have simply approved the finding of guilty. This would have been an act of cowardice on my part and a breach of my integrity."
It would appear that a reasonable person would give Franklin, a highly accomplished and respected officer with more than 30 years distinguished service, the benefit of the doubt. He understood the possible consequences of his action and had the courage of his convictions. For those who cannot or will not forgive Franklin, a reasonable and logical person must see also that causing serious change to a system that has served us well for 60 years because of one controversial issue is analogous to throwing the baby out with the bath water.
The earlier statement — "So long as we hold our commanders accountable for everything a command does or fails to do, they must have these authorities" — is doubly true. Those held responsible must maintain the authority that comes with command. With the repeal of "Don't Ask Don't Tell" and the secretary of defense opening all combat arms specialties to women, our armed forces have been subjected to more than enough social experimentation and cultural alteration.
I would hope that Congress will see through the bias and vicious second guessing and inform the secretary of defense that "since the system ain't broke, there is no need to fix it."