WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Lawmakers admonished America's top military officers over sexual assault in the armed forces on Tuesday, but top brass warned against a plan in Congress to take the cases out of the hands of commanders.
The Senate hearing comes after a wave of sexual assault scandals and new Pentagon data showing a steep rise in unwanted sexual contact, from groping to rape, that have deeply embarrassed the military and prompted lawmakers to try to impose change with new legislation.
"You have lost the trust of the men and women who rely on you that you will actually bring justice in these cases," said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York.
Senator John McCain, a Republican from Arizona, said he could not "overstate my disgust and disappointment" over the continued reports of sexual misconduct.
The top uniformed officers of the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air Force and Coast Guard sat in a line, listening silently, as did the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the top attorneys from each service.
The exceptional display underscored how the problem of sexual assault, which has been around for years, appears to have exhausted the patience of lawmakers.
"My years of experience in this area tell me they are committing crimes of domination and violence. This isn't about sex," said Senator Claire McCaskill, a Democrat from Missouri and a former prosecutor who handled sex crimes.
The chiefs appeared to lend their support to an April proposal by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel that would curb a key power of commanders - their ability to alter verdicts in courts-martial for major crimes like murder or sexual assault.
But they objected to Gillibrand's proposal, which would take responsibility for prosecuting sex crimes out of the victim's chain of command altogether and given to special prosecutors.
"The legislation ... is absolutely the wrong direction to go," said General James Amos, commandant of the Marine Corps.
General Raymond Odierno, Army chief of staff, cautioned against any rush to create new laws overhauling the military justice system, saying "we cannot simply legislate our way out of this problem."
A study the Defense Department released in May estimated that cases of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 cases, from 19,000 the previous year.
Lawmakers scorned top brass for failing to break down that data.
"Unwanted sexual contact is everything from somebody looking at you sideways when they shouldn't to someone pushing you up against the wall and brutally raping you," McCaskill said.
Outrage in recent months has been fanned by a series of cases of alleged sexual assault across the military. This includes accusations leveled against military officials whose job it was to defend victims of sexual assault.
There has also been growing concern about how the military justice system itself works.
In one high-profile case, a senior U.S. military commander in Europe set aside the sexual assault conviction of an Air Force officer, throwing out his one-year prison term and dismissal from the service.
"It's almost intolerable that we can continue on this current path by allowing the commanders to be in charge at the level they are," said Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia.
Gillibrand went further, saying that there was still discrimination in the armed forces and that not every commander wanted women in the military.
"Not every commander can distinguish between a slap on the ass and rape," she said.
Editing by Alistair Bell and Philip Barbara; editing by Prudence Crowther