Hagel to strip military courts’ power

Convening authorities, beware. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel soon will ask Congress to strip from the military justice system one of its most powerful and most controversial features: the ability for commanding officers to reduce or eliminate criminal convictions and sentences. In a statement issued Monday, Hagel said he has asked the Pentagon’s top lawyers to ...

Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images
Alex Wong/Getty Images

Convening authorities, beware. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel soon will ask Congress to strip from the military justice system one of its most powerful and most controversial features: the ability for commanding officers to reduce or eliminate criminal convictions and sentences.

In a statement issued Monday, Hagel said he has asked the Pentagon’s top lawyers to prepare legislation to submit to Congress that would eliminate the “convening authority” power to reduce punishments in all cases, “except for certain minor offenses that would not ordinarily warrant trial by court-martial.”

“The changes have the full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service secretaries,” Hagel said.

Convening authorities, beware. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel soon will ask Congress to strip from the military justice system one of its most powerful and most controversial features: the ability for commanding officers to reduce or eliminate criminal convictions and sentences.

In a statement issued Monday, Hagel said he has asked the Pentagon’s top lawyers to prepare legislation to submit to Congress that would eliminate the “convening authority” power to reduce punishments in all cases, “except for certain minor offenses that would not ordinarily warrant trial by court-martial.”

“The changes have the full support of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the service secretaries,” Hagel said.

The controversy over sentence reductions is not new, but until recently has been relegated mostly to military legal circles. But members of Congress exploded after hearing in March that a three-star, Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin, overturned the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Col. James Wilkerson in Aviano Air Base, in Italy.

In the military system, the move was completely legal and cannot be appealed to any higher authority, including Hagel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or President Obama. By eliminating the power to reduce convictions and sentences altogether, Hagel’s measure, if adopted in Congress, would eliminate the need for appeal.

Military justice experts say the power of the convening authority to reduce punishments is intended to be used as a discretionary tool of discipline within the ranks. But Franklin’s decision widely was panned.

Kevin Baron is a national security reporter for Foreign Policy, covering defense and military issues in Washington. He is also vice president of the Pentagon Press Association. Baron previously was a national security staff writer for National Journal, covering the "business of war." Prior to that, Baron worked in the resident daily Pentagon press corps as a reporter/photographer for Stars and Stripes. For three years with Stripes, Baron covered the building and traveled overseas extensively with the secretary of defense and chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, covering official visits to Afghanistan and Iraq, the Middle East and Europe, China, Japan and South Korea, in more than a dozen countries. From 2004 to 2009, Baron was the Boston Globe Washington bureau's investigative projects reporter, covering defense, international affairs, lobbying and other issues. Before that, he muckraked at the Center for Public Integrity. Baron has reported on assignment from Asia, Africa, Australia, Europe, the Middle East and the South Pacific. He was won two Polk Awards, among other honors. He has a B.A. in international studies from the University of Richmond and M.A. in media and public affairs from George Washington University. Originally from Orlando, Fla., Baron has lived in the Washington area since 1998 and currently resides in Northern Virginia with his wife, three sons, and the family dog, The Edge. Twitter: @FPBaron

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