U.S. General Court-Martialed Over Sexual Assault Charges

Aug 19, 2013

As the military tries to stem the tide of sexual assault in the ranks, an Army general is on trial for sexual assault charges at Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

The charges follow Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Sinclair’s affair with a captain on his staff.

Sinclair has pleaded not guilty to all the charges, but the court martial so far has revealed sordid details about Sinclair’s relationship with his subordinate.

Washington Post reporter Craig Whitlock has been writing about the revelations and joins us.


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It's HERE AND NOW. A warning - we're going to be talking about sexual assault next, specifically sexual assault in the military. This high-profile case involves a very high-ranking member of the military, Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair, who's facing court-martial after a long and volatile affair with another officer. Craig Whitlock is covering the story for The Washington Post, and he joins us. Craig, welcome.


CHAKRABARTI: First of all, let's talk about the two people involved in this court-martial. Tell us a little bit more about who Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair is.

WHITLOCK: Well, he's a rising star. He was a rising start in the Army. He's a Ranger. He's a member of the 82nd Airborne Division. He's deployed several times to Afghanistan and Iraq and I think was considered on a fast pace to move up the ranks. He's been a general for a few years and was pretty well-regarded in the Army. So when these charges were disclosed and this investigation happened, I think it's fair to say that it was just the fact that he was under investigation was quite a bit of a shock.

CHAKRABARTI: Now, what about the accuser? Was she a member of his staff?

WHITLOCK: Yes, she was. She first was a member of his staff in Iraq when she was a first lieutenant, so a pretty young officer. And over the years she came to work with him in a number of places, which was a little unusual. In the military people take different job assignments. They move to different parts of the world. But they usually don't work for the same boss for that long. She went back and forth, but they spent time in Germany together. They spent time at Fort Bragg together. And ultimately they were - she was working for him again in Afghanistan when this relationship went sour.

CHAKRABARTI: So they had a relationship throughout much of this time?

WHITLOCK: That's right. It extended almost three years. They would meet in different Army posts in the U.S., and then they both went to Afghanistan again in 2011.

CHAKRABARTI: So they had a relationship for a period of several years, and yet General Sinclair is being charged with sexual assault. So what exactly is he being accused of having done?

WHITLOCK: Well, he's being accused of a number of things. One is adultery, which is a crime or a potential crime under the Uniform Code of Military Justice. He's charged with several counts of conduct unbecoming a gentleman. He's charged with inappropriate communications with other women. Now, the sexual assault charge comes from allegations from the captain, the accuser in the case, who told investigators that on two occasions that he forced her to have oral sex, and that's the basis for the sexual assault charge, which, of course, raises this case to, you know, a whole different level; it then becomes an investigation and a crime of violence.

And that could send General Sinclair to jail if he's found guilty of that and depending on the sentence. So it's not that unusual for generals or officers - certainly over the years we've seen plenty of cases where they're found to have had an affair, that they slept with other people who they weren't married to. And sometimes they're charged administratively. They're given discipline outside of criminal sanctions. But this case - one of the charges was sexual assault.

CHAKRABARTI: General Sinclair has pleaded not guilty to the charges. We're going to talk a little bit about the nature of this court-martial in just a second. But this case is particularly not black and white because of the fact that these two people did have an admitted longstanding relationship. And much of your reporting, you know, details that relationship. Apparently the accuser, you know, admits that she fell hard for General Sinclair. She frequently sent him very emotional and passionate text messages even.

WHITLOCK: That's right. And it's similar to a lot of the sexual assault cases we see in the military, that they are not black and white. What is different in this case is that the relationship did go on for, you know, an awful long time, almost three years. It was, as you described it, a very passionate relationship. The defense team has read out a number of text messages that the female captain sent to the general, and you know, there's no getting around that they're pretty sordid messages and that they were - both fell pretty hard for each other.

The difference is that it was also a volatile relationship. Her text messages show that she was angry at the general, and she threatened to report him and threatened to end his career by telling senior generals about what had been going on. So certainly the motivations and intentions of both parties in this is something that's going to be dissected pretty closely during the court-martial.

CHAKRABARTI: And it seems so very rare for a general to ever face court-martial, and yet this case is going forward, especially at a time where there is more focus on sexual assault in the military than pretty much ever. That has to be top of mind of in people on both sides or all sides of this court-martial.

WHITLOCK: Well, that's right. I think it's no coincidence that this case has gone forward at a time when people in Congress - in the White House - President Obama has spoken out very strongly about his desire to see people held accountable for the crime of sexual assault, sexual misconduct. He essentially said he wanted to see heads roll. So the Army is in a very delicate position here. They don't want to be seen as going soft on any anyone in a sexual assault case, particularly a general.

There's always this longstanding suspicion in the military that senior officers are treated with more deference and don't face the same level of punishment that maybe an enlisted person would. So the Army is sensitive to that. They're sensitive to Congress. They don't want to be seen as going soft on a general. At the same time, it is extremely rare to go to court-martial for a general. This is only the third time in half a century.

There is no question that General Sinclair had an affair. He's pleaded not guilty to all charges. But his lawyers admit he had an affair. Will he go to jail for it for this sexual assault charge? You know, we don't know. We have to see what the jury finds out. And interestingly in this case, the jurors are all two-star generals. So they're very aware of the political context to what's going on in Washington, and that's going to be in the back of their mind.

CHAKRABARTI: So where does the court-martial stand now? What's going to happen next?

WHITLOCK: Well, they just finished selecting a jury, which was not easy in this case. By military law, all the members of the jury have to be senior in rank to the person being court-martialed. So they have to find - they had to find generals who were two stars and above. They did, but it took a while because so many of them either knew - General Sinclair knew other people involved in the case, so they just finished that up. And now, unusually, they split up the next phase of the trial, which is the actual testimony and witnesses and evidence coming forth. But that will start late next month at Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Craig Whitlock is a reporter for The Washington Post speaking to us about the court-marital of Brigadier General Jeffrey Sinclair. Craig, thank you so much.

WHITLOCK: Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, up next, a New York art dealer is accused of selling $80 million in forged artwork. We'll speak to a former forger about how that might have happened. You're listening to HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.