Defense

Pentagon chief backs change to military sexual assault prosecution

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday he will support removing decisions on prosecuting sexual assault cases from military commanders, backing a change long sought by advocates.

In a statement, Austin said the Pentagon will work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command, letting independent military lawyers handle them instead.

This marks the first time Austin said he will support such a move and comes after he received the final recommendations and complete report of the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment.

He said the Pentagon will work with Congress to implement the recommendations as “it provides us real opportunities to finally end the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military.”

Austin, who is set to testify to the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, did not touch on recent congressional efforts to overhaul the military justice system, including Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand’s (D-N.Y.) bill that would go broader and require that all major crimes, including sexual assault and murder, be handled by independent lawyers.

Gillibrand’s bill has 66 co-sponsors, more than enough to overcome a Senate filibuster. But a dozen efforts by Gillibrand to get the bill a floor vote have been blocked by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.) and ranking member Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.).

In letters released Tuesday by Inhofe, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and the chiefs of the Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force, Space Force and National Guard Bureau argued that removing military prosecutions of all serious crimes from the chain of command could undermine commanders’ ability to lead.

“It is my professional opinion that removing commanders from the prosecution decisions, process, and accountability may have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, justice, unit cohesion, trust, and loyalty between commanders and those they lead,” Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in his letter, elaborating on recent testimony before the committee.

And in the House, Reps. Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Mike Turner (R-Ohio) on Wednesday were set to introduce a bill to mirror that of Gillibrand’s, the Vanessa Guillén Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act. The legislation is named in honor of Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was killed by another soldier at Fort Hood, Texas, in April 2020 after she told her family she was being sexually harassed.

The Associated Press reported that the independent panel, which delivered its report to Austin a day prior, instead recommended that sexual assault, sexual misconduct, domestic violence, stalking, retaliation, child sexual assault and the wrongful distribution of photos be taken from the chain of command.

“I support this as well, given the strong correlation between these sorts of crimes and the prevalence of sexual assault,” Austin said.

The commission also recommended changes to the Pentagon’s approach on prevention, command climate and victim services.

“I am reviewing the full scope of the commission’s recommendations in these areas, but generally they appear strong and well-grounded,” Austin said in the statement. “I have directed my staff to do a detailed assessment and implementation plan for my review and approval.”

Austin said he will present to President Biden his specific recommendations about the commission’s findings “in coming days.”

He added that the Pentagon will need more funding, personnel and authorities to carry out the commission’s recommendations, with those that can be done under existing authority to be given priority.

“We will most assuredly require additional resources, both in personnel and in funding. But it may take us some time to determine how much and where they are most wisely applied,” Austin said, noting that Defense officials will need to work closely with Congress to secure the extra dollars.

“As I made clear on my first full day in office, this is a leadership issue,” he said. “And we will lead. Our people depend upon it. They deserve nothing less.”

Tags Jack Reed Jackie Speier James Inhofe Joe Biden Kirsten Gillibrand Lloyd Austin Mark Milley Mike Turner military sexual assault
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