WASHINGTON (AP) -- Military leaders said Tuesday that sexual assault in the ranks is "like a cancer" that could destroy the force, but they rejected far-reaching congressional efforts to strip commanders of some authority in meting out justice.
Seated side-by-side at a long witness table, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the head of each branch of the military and Pentagon lawyers testified on what is widely viewed as an epidemic of sexual assault plaguing the services.
Outraged by recent high-profile cases and overwhelming statistics, lawmakers have moved aggressively on legislation to address the scourge of sexual assault. They summoned the military brass to answer their questions at a jam-packed hearing.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said the problem of sexual assault "is of such a scope and magnitude that it has become a stain on our military."
Congress has acted in prior years to ensure the aggressive investigation and prosecution of sexual assaults, Levin said, but more needs to be done. The committee is considering seven bills to deal with sexual assault.
As important as additional protections would be, Levin said, the problem won't be addressed successfully without a cultural change throughout the military, starting at the top of the chain of command.
"The military services are hierarchal organizations: The tone is set from the top of that chain, the message comes from the top, and accountability rests at the top," said Levin, who has not endorsed any of the bills.
The military leaders offered no disagreement about the impact on the services.
"Sexual assault and harassment are like a cancer within the force -- a cancer that left untreated will destroy the fabric of our force," said Army Gen. Ray Odierno. "It's imperative that we take a comprehensive approach to prevent attacks, to protect our people, and where appropriate, to prosecute wrongdoing and hold people accountable."
While acknowledging the problem and accepting that legislation is inevitable, military leaders insisted that commanders keep their authority to handle sexual assault cases.
"Reducing command responsibility could adversely affect the ability of the commander to enforce professional standards and ultimately, to accomplish the mission," Dempsey told the committee.
The four-star chiefs told the committee they support Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel's April recommendation to change the Uniform Code of Military Justice and largely strip commanding officers of the power to toss out a verdict. The change is included in several of the Senate proposals and likely will be adopted by the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday in their version of the annual defense policy bill.
But service chiefs expressed concern over making broader changes to the military's legal code that would undercut the ability of commanders to discipline the troops they need.
One of the Senate bills proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would go the farthest by removing commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial. That judgment would rest with seasoned trial counsels who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or above.
Her legislation, which has 18 cosponsors including four Republicans, also would take away a commander's authority to convene a court-martial. That responsibility would be given to new and separate offices outside the victim's chain of command.
Commanders would maintain their current authority in the legal process in cases of espionage, theft, sedition and conduct unbecoming an officer in her bill.
Voices rising, female members of the committee tangled with military leaders, complaining that the military's reporting process fails to recognize the seriousness of rape, sometimes equating it with incidents of sexual harassment.
"This isn't about sex," Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., told the panel, but about "crimes of domination and violence."
Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, said a commander's ability to punish quickly, visibly and at the unit level is essential to maintaining discipline within the ranks.
"Without equivocation, I believe maintaining the central role of the commander in our military justice system is absolutely critical," Odierno said.
The Air Force's top officer, Gen. Mark Welsh, said airmen should have no doubt about who will hold them accountable.
"Commanders having the authority to hold airmen criminally accountable for misconduct ... is crucial to building combat-ready, disciplined units," Welsh said.
The Pentagon estimated in a recent report that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, up from an estimated 19,000 assaults in 2012, based on an anonymous survey of military personnel. While the number of sexual assaults that members of the military actually reported rose 6 percent to 3,374 in 2012, thousands of victims were still unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs aimed at curbing the crimes, the report said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said he cannot overstate his "disgust and disappointment" with continued reports of sexual assaults in the ranks and said they could dissuade prospective recruits from joining the armed forces.
Despite the military's efforts to stop sexual assaults in the ranks, Dempsey said in response to a question from McCain that there are gaps in the way the services screen prospective recruits that could allow an individual with a history of sex-related crimes to join the military.
"There are currently, in my judgment senator, inadequate protections for precluding that from happening," Dempsey said. "So a sex offender could in fact find their way into the armed forces of the United States."
Last week, the Pentagon said the U.S. Naval Academy is investigating allegations that three football team members sexually assaulted a female midshipman at an off-campus house more than a year ago. A lawyer for the woman says she was "ostracized" on campus after she reported it.
In recent weeks, a soldier at the U.S. Military Academy was charged with secretly photographing women, including in a bathroom. The Air Force officer who led the service's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response unit was arrested on charges of groping a woman. And the manager of the Army's sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., was relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife.
Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, top Republican on the committee, said he was wary of proposals to restrict the authority of commanders to discipline their troops.
"Fundamentally we cannot abolish sexual assault by legislation alone as you point out. Eliminating sexual assault requires commanders to drive cultural change and achieve accountability," Inhofe said.
The power of a commander under military law to convene courts-martial and uphold or dismiss their verdicts dates back to the Articles of War adopted by the Continental Congress in 1775.
But it wasn't until much later in the nation's history that service members were allowed to appeal a conviction to a higher military court. That access to what Hagel has described as a "robust system of appeal rights" led to his recommendation to take away a commander's power to grant clemency in court-martial cases.
The push by members of Congress to further restrict the authority of commanders stems primarily from a recent case in which Air Force Lt. Gen. James Franklin overturned a guilty verdict against a lieutenant colonel convicted on charges of abusive sexual contact and aggravated sexual assault.
In cautioning against making significant changes to military law without careful consideration, Welsh told the committee that complete reversals of court-martial findings in Air Force sexual assault cases are rare. Franklin's decision is the only one out of 327 cases over the last five years, he said.