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The Senate Armed Services Committee weighed Tuesday whether to promote Gen. John Hyten to the second-highest military job in the country days after an Army colonel publicly accused him of sexual assault.
Many senators seemed unconvinced by the allegations.
Col. Kathryn A. Spletstoser told the New York Times Friday that Hyten inappropriately touched her several times in 2017; during one occasion, she said, he ejaculated against her. Hyten, who's been nominated to serve as the vice chair for the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has repeatedly denied the allegations, and military officials declined to court-martial him after an investigation.
That investigation was repeatedly mentioned in a Tuesday hearing, where members of the Senate Armed Services Committee questioned Hyten about his nomination. Senators largely seemed satisfied with its findings.
The gauntlet was thrown early by Arizona Republican Sen. Martha McSally — a 26-year Air Force veteran and a survivor of military sexual assault herself.
“As a result of the exhaustive process and extreme due diligence, I have full confidence in Gen. Hyten’s ability to be the next vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff,” McSally said. “The full truth was revealed in this process. The truth is that Gen. Hyten is innocent of these charges. Sexual assault happens in the military. It just didn’t happen in this case. I pray the accuser gets the help she needs and finds the peace she is searching for, but it cannot be by destroying Gen. Hyten with these false allegations.”
While sexual assault allegations should always be investigated, McSally continued, she worried that false allegations could lead to “collateral damage.” Men could refuse to hire or promote women in the military out of fear that they’d be accused, she said, or would retire from the military rather than ascend the ranks.
She did not ask any questions of Hyten.
The military investigation consisted of dozens of interviews and reviews of thousands of documents, Heather Wilson, former Air Force secretary, told the senators. By the time of the public hearings, senators had also already privately questioned Hyten and deliberated over the allegations for about 15 hours.
“I accept that it is entirely possible that his accuser is a wounded soldier who believes what she is saying is true,” Wilson said. “Even if it’s not, that possibility makes this whole situation very sad.”
McSally did, however, acknowledge that her line of questioning may send the wrong message to fellow sexual violence survivors.
“Don’t take the wrong message from how this is being played out publicly,” she said. “The process I just witnessed was strong, fair, and investigators turned over every rock to seek justice.”
But not everybody seemed entirely on board with her approach, and a handful of senators pressed Hyten hard on his plan to fight the number of sexual assaults in the military, which rose nearly 38% between 2018 and 2016. About 20,500 members of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines were estimated to have endured "unwanted sexual contact" in 2018, according to a Pentagon report.
When New Hampshire Democratic Sen. Jeanne Shaheen asked him whether the military’s chain of command should be removed from dealing with those allegations, Hyten said no. Commanders helped eradicate racism from the service, he said, and could help do the same with sexual violence.
“Now when I’m in uniform, I feel color-blind, which is amazing,” Hyten replied. “That hasn’t happened with sexual assault yet. It has not. But the chain of command has to be involved for this problem to be fixed. Every commander has to embrace it. If they do, with support from the Congress, support from law, support from all those kinds of pieces, we can get after this. But we have to do it together.”
Senate Democrats weren’t swayed by Hyten’s hopeful promises.
“Well, clearly we need to do a much better job of holding people accountable,” Shaheen shot back.
“Your answer was really vague,” Illinois Sen. Tammy Duckworth, a Democrat and Iraq War veteran, told Hyten later. “You had over 10-plus years while you’ve been in leadership to talk about this… I worry about your leadership on this issue.”
As is her custom for all Senate confirmations nominees, Hawaii Sen. Mazie Hirono asked Hyten whether he’d ever made unwanted sexual advances or faced any consequences for any such advances. Hyten said he had not.
Then, Hirono seemed to strike at McSally’s comments that military men could be imperiled by false accusations.
“The fear that men in command or men in positions of authority will be subjected to false accusations because of the fear that women basically sit around accusing men falsely is a dangerous view, in my opinion, because the fact is women who are sexually assaulted more often do not report,” said the senator, who’s renowned for her plain-speaking approach to the issue of sexual violence.
Sen. Joni Ernst, an Iowa Republican who has spoken publicly about surviving sexual assault, also wasn’t as sold on Hyten as McSally. Ernst went after the general over an administrative inquiry involving Spletstoser, where colleagues called her “toxic” and “disrespectful to senior officers and civilians,” according to the New York Times. Yet Hyten had remained supportive of Spletstoser, and did not alert superiors as the investigation proceeded.
That incident, Ernst said, led her to be concerned about Hyten’s judgment. “All of this suggests a conflict between your personal inclinations and your professional responsibilities.”