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Austin tight lipped on whether to take sexual assault cases out of commanders' hands

Austin tight lipped on whether to take sexual assault cases out of commanders' hands
© Greg Nash

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinConcerns grow over China's Taiwan plans Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Austin says he's 'concerned' about Iranian ships in Atlantic MORE on Thursday would not say if he will impose new recommendations to prosecute sexual assaults outside the military's chain of command.

The Pentagon chief said he is still waiting for military service chiefs and secretaries to give their two cents on the matter later this month, though his top uniformed adviser, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyConcerns grow over China's Taiwan plans Overnight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Pentagon chief: Military has already started 'over-the-horizon' operations in Afghanistan MORE, has already dropped his objection to the proposed change.

“I think it’s worth having my leaders, our leaders, engage in discussion on this,” Austin said alongside Milley at the pair’s first joint press briefing since Austin took office in January. 

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“I think we’ve done things a certain way for a while and I think we really need to kind of broaden our horizons and begin to look at things differently and be willing to take different paths to improve things.”

An independent review commission earlier this month gave Austin the recommendation to remove military commanders from deciding on sexual assault cases. In their place, independent judge advocates, who would report to a civilian-led Office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor, would decide whether to charge someone in certain cases of special victims crimes including sexual assault and sexual harassment.

The recommendations come amid a push in the Biden administration and Congress to tackle sexual assault in the military, a major problem which has stubbornly persisted over the years as top military leaders repeatedly claimed such cases must be handled by commanders or units would face a breakdown.  

Austin in January pledged to prioritize combating the issue and earlier this year appointed the independent panel to come up with solutions. 

And Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Defense: Austin and Milley talk budget, Afghanistan, sexual assault and more at wide-ranging Senate hearing Top general: Military justice overhaul proposed by Gillibrand 'requires some detailed study' Cher apologizes for confusing Sinema, Gillibrand MORE (D-N.Y.) last week unveiled a bill — expected to have widespread support — that would take decisions about whether to prosecute such sexual assault cases away from military commanders.

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Austin so far has remained tight lipped about which direction he will go in with the recommendations, and on Thursday also would not say if he had discussed the issue with the the military’s top leaders, only that he’s “given them specific guidance in terms of my desire to have them review the recommendation” and give their feedback. 

Milley, however, first said earlier this week that he would be open to prosecuting sexual assault out of the chain of command, dropping years of objections after he witnessed a lack of change in the military's assault rates and troops' waning confidence in leaders’ ability to deal with such crimes.  

“Frankly, you ask me what has caused me to have a change and I’ve given it a hard thought: We haven’t moved the needle, we haven’t resolved this issue,” Milley said Thursday. 

Based on internal surveys, roughly 20,000 men and women were sexually assaulted in the U.S. military last year, according to Milley.

“That’s huge, that’s significant. And that number hasn’t significantly been reduced over time. So we need to take a hard look. ... These are blue on blue assaults, it cannot stand, it has to be resolved, so yes my mind is very open to it,” Milley added. 

Austin, meanwhile, said the independent review commission — which first met in April — still has 60 days to give him recommendations on not just accountability, but also prevention culture and victim support.

“I think the accountability piece of it is a very important piece but it’s not the only piece,” Austin said. “There are climate issues, there are how we take care of victims issues, there are a number of things ... that will add to this entire picture here. I think it’s a combination of those things that will cause us to begin to move forward on this.”