Photographer: Ben Baker/Bloomberg
Photographer: Ben Baker/Bloomberg

When the military's top leaders line up and say they don't want to change a situation that's resulted in a massive number of sexual assaults going unpunished, and the Senate Armed Services Committee says you don't have to: Where's the oversight in that?

Yesterday the committee voted 17-9 against Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand's logical fix: take reporting and prosecuting out of the chain of command, where the alleged perpetrator and the victim may serve together under a commanding officer, who probably knows both, and transfer that authority over to uniformed military lawyers who could dispassionately handle a victim's report.

We're finally at a point where everyone agrees there's an epidemic of sexual violence in the military. Until last March, when seven women joined the committee, there hadn't been a committee hearing on the subject for almost a decade. Now there's an admission of guilt, of a sort.

General James Amos, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, said female Marines don't often come forward, "because they don't trust the command." General Raymond Odierno, chief of staff of the Army, said, "These crimes cut to the heart of the Army's readiness for war. They destroy the very fabric of our force -- soldier and unit morale." Army Secretary John McHugh conceded, "We have failed." And finally, General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said, "if a perpetrator shows up at a court-martial with a rack of ribbons and has four deployments and a Purple Heart, there is certainly the risk that we might be a little too forgiving of that particular crime."

Gillibrand couldn't have said it better herself.

In today's military -- the one that was wracked last year by an estimated 26,000 sexual assaults, of which 3,300 were reported, resulting in just 302 prosecutions -- victims can report to several places but regardless of who they report to, the complaint ends up with their commanding officer who is responsible for sending it to the investigators. When the completed case report comes back to the commanding officer, he or she has the sole discretion over what to do with it.

Whatever on-ramp of reporting you choose, you are still caught on the same road within your own small world where everyone knows your name. And even the rare case that goes to court and ends in a conviction, a commanding officer, again based on his or her sole discretion, can overturn it without explanation.

That's the system the committee let stand.

Dempsey's admission brings to mind Jack Nicholson in ``A Few Good Men'': the generals "can't handle the truth." They are the problem.

(Margaret Carlson is Bloomberg View columnist. Follow her on Twitter.)