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Top general: Military justice overhaul proposed by Gillibrand 'requires some detailed study'

Top general: Military justice overhaul proposed by Gillibrand 'requires some detailed study'
© Greg Nash

The United States’s top general on Thursday said he thinks a proposal to remove military prosecutions of all serious crimes from the chain of command “requires some detailed study” while reiterating his openness to such a change only for sexual assault prosecutions.

“I am very open minded to some significant and fundamental change in the area of sexual assault, sexual harassment,” Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark MilleyMark MilleyOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on race theory, 'white rage' Top US general downplays Taliban battlefield gains MORE told the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“The bright line of all felonies, for example, I think that requires some detailed study before we completely overhaul the entire [Uniform Code of Military Justice], but the focused area of sexual assault and sexual harassment, I’m completely open minded to some very significant changes, and I think that's also true of most of the senior leaders in uniform,” he added.

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Momentum has been building toward a major change in the military justice system to take the decision to prosecute sexual assault and sexual harassment away from commanders and give it to independent prosecutors after years of resistance to change from the top brass.

The Independent Review Commission empaneled by Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on race theory, 'white rage' Top US general downplays Taliban battlefield gains MORE to study how better to tackle sexual assault in the military has recommended such a change, and Milley earlier this year dropped his objection to the proposal.

But a rupture has emerged among Democratic lawmakers over how broadly to reform the military justice system.

A bill from Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandOvernight Defense: Joint Chiefs chairman clashes with GOP on critical race theory | House bill introduced to overhaul military justice system as sexual assault reform builds momentum House lawmakers introduce bill to overhaul military justice system Pentagon chief backs change to military sexual assault prosecution MORE (D-N.Y.) would remove the decision to prosecute all serious crimes — including sexual assault, but also other crimes such as murder — from the chain of command.

The bill has more than 60 co-sponsors, enough to overcome a Senate filibuster. But several efforts by Gillibrand to get the bill a floor vote have been blocked by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack ReedJack ReedHouse lawmakers introduce bill to overhaul military justice system Pentagon chief backs change to military sexual assault prosecution Overnight Defense: Joint Chiefs warn against sweeping reform to military justice system | Senate panel plans July briefing on war authorization repeal | National Guard may have 'training issues' if not reimbursed MORE (D-R.I.).

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Reed has said he favors tackling the issue in the annual defense policy bill, rather than a stand-alone vote on Gillibrand’s bill, something supporters of her bill say is an effort to water down reforms. Reed supports the recommendation of the Independent Review Commission on sexual assault prosecutions over the broader reforms being proposed by Gillibrand.

Austin, for his part, has not taken a position as he continues weighing the commission’s recommendation, though he maintains he is keeping an open mind.

Austin told senators Thursday that he plans on making his recommendations to President BidenJoe BidenSchumer vows to advance two-pronged infrastructure plan next month Biden appoints veteran housing, banking regulator as acting FHFA chief Iran claims U.S. to lift all oil sanctions but State Department says 'nothing is agreed' MORE based on the commission’s findings “later this month.”

Austin also stressed that he thinks any changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) should be “scoped to the problem.”

“As I've said before, what we are doing is not working and we need to fix it,” Austin said. “And I want to be sure that whatever changes we make to the UCMJ, or whatever changes to the UCMJ that I recommend to the president and ultimately to this committee, that they are scoped to the problem that we are trying to solve and have a clear way forward on implementation and ultimately restore the confidence of the force and the system.”