Air Force secretary nominee: Gillibrand has ‘some persuasive arguments’ on military justice overhaul
Sen. Kirsten Gillbrand (D-N.Y.) has made “some persuasive arguments” for her proposal to overhaul the military justice system, President Biden’s Air Force secretary nominee said Tuesday, while stopping short of endorsing her plan.
“You made some persuasive arguments, but I’d really like to hear from the Air Force leadership, as well, on that before having a final opinion on that,” Frank Kendall, the nominee for Air Force secretary, told Gillibrand at his Senate Armed Services Committee confirmation hearing.
While Kendall said he hasn’t had a chance to look into Gillibrand’s bill specifically, he appeared to endorse reforms in prosecuting military sexual assault more generally.
“We’re on the brink of some important change that I hope will be very beneficial in this area,” he said. “Change is necessary, and hopefully we can move forward.”
Gillibrand has for years pushed taking the decision to prosecute serious crimes out of the chain of command as part of her efforts to combat military sexual assault.
An independent commission ordered by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin to study how to improve the military’s response to sexual assault has recommended a similar change to the military justice system.
But the commission’s recommendation would only take the decision to prosecute sex crimes away from commanders, while Gillibrand’s proposal would also apply to other felony-level crimes such as murder.
Gillibrand recently secured more than 60 senators to co-sponsor her bill, enough to overcome a filibuster for the first time since she proposed the legislation nearly a decade ago.
But a Democratic dispute over the scope of military sexual assault reforms that had been building behind the scenes spilled out onto the Senate floor Monday evening when Gillibrand sought a vote on her bill but was blocked by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.).
Reed argued the issue should go through his committee and be incorporated into the annual defense policy bill rather than the stand-alone vote Gillibrand sought, but Gillibrand fumed that doing so would result in her proposal being watered down.
One of the arguments supporters of Gillibrand’s broader approach make is that taking commanders out of prosecutions for all serious crimes could also help address the racial disparities in the military justice system.
An Air Force inspector general review last year confirmed Black airmen are treated differently in criminal investigations and military justice than their white counterparts, but did not look at root causes.
Asked by Gillibrand on Tuesday about racial disparities in military justice, Kendall said the issue “concerns me very much.”
“It’s important to the health of the force and its mission readiness and its capabilities that we get at this,” he said, pledging to work on addressing root causes.
Kendall also vowed to take command climate “extremely seriously” as part of efforts to combat sexual assault.
“I think it is frankly at the root of the problems we have with sexual assault and sexual harassment,” he said, “and if we can’t address that, we’re not going to be successful at prevention.”