Biden backs major military sexual assault reform
President Biden “fully supports” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s recommendations on tackling sexual assault in the military, including the proposal to remove decisions to prosecute sex crimes from the chain of command.
Biden’s support comes as the administration on Friday officially rolled out the findings of the Independent Review Commission, which was tasked with studying ways to eradicate what has been a pervasive issue in the military.
“I strongly support Secretary Austin’s announcement that he is accepting the core recommendations put forward by the Independent Review Commission on Military Sexual Assault (IRC), including removing the investigation and prosecution of sexual assault from the chain of command and creating highly specialized units to handle these cases and related crimes,” Biden said in a statement after the report’s release.
“Today’s announcement is the beginning, not the end of our work,” he added. “This will be among the most significant reforms to our military undertaken in recent history, and I’m committed to delivering results.”
In the nearly 300-page document, “Hard Truths and the Duty to Change,” the commission laid out more than 80 recommendations, the most major being the creation of a special victim prosecutor office and to “shift legal decisions about prosecution of special victim cases out of the chain of command,” according to the report.
Including military justice reform, the IRC report makes a total of 28 recommendations and 54 sub-recommendations in the areas of accountability, prevention, climate and culture and victim care and support, all of which its authors said are equally important and interdependent in stopping sex crimes in the military.
“Each must receive constant attention by commanders and enlisted leaders. Focusing on these issues cannot be seen by leaders as a distraction from the warfighting mission; indeed, if the military is to succeed in that mission, it cannot fail to address sexual harassment and sexual assault. Leaders have many responsibilities that demand their attention, but they cannot take days off from stopping the degradation of some Service members by others,” the report states.
In memo released Friday, Austin said he has a “strong bias toward accepting” the report’s recommendations “wherever possible with adjustments made to ensure effective implementation.” Austin arrived at his decision after “extensive consultation with the military and civilian leadership” of the military branches, he added.
On a background call ahead of the release of the IRC report, a senior administration official told reporters that Biden spoke with Austin about these issues “and fully supports his approach.”
Biden is “really pleased to see that there is a growing consensus that these crimes should be taken out of the chain of command,” the official added.
In one of his first acts after taking office, Biden ordered Austin to review the military’s policies on sexual assault and harassment and find new ways to tackle a problem that Pentagon leaders have struggled to stem for years. Biden had said during the 2020 presidential campaign he supported removing the decision to prosecute major crimes such as sexual assault from the chain of command.
In line with Biden’s order, Austin in February empaneled the IRC and appointed Lynn Rosenthal, formerly the first-ever White House adviser on violence against women and a well-known gender violence expert, to lead the effort.
Even before formally concluding its work, the IRC in April recommended a major change that Pentagon leaders have resisted for years: taking the decision to prosecute sexual assault, sexual harassment and related crimes such as domestic violence away from commanders and giving it to special victims prosecutors.
Last week, after the panel concluded its work and before briefing Biden on its findings, Austin endorsed the recommendation to remove sex crimes from the chain of command, becoming the first Pentagon chief to back such a change.
The debate in Congress, however, has largely moved on from whether to reform the military justice system to how broadly to reform it.
A bipartisan bill from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that has enough support to overcome a filibuster would remove most felony-level crimes, including sexual assault but also crimes such as murder, from the chain of command. But several efforts by Gillibrand to get a vote on the bill have been blocked by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who supports the IRC’s more narrow recommendation.
In the background call with reporters, senior administration officials sidestepped a question on whether the administration supports Gillibrand’s bill, saying that she “deserves an enormous amount of credit for her tireless efforts” but that administration officials will now defer to Congress to “work out the details for legislating that change.”
Still, officials stressed that the IRC members “reject the notion that shifting legal decisions about prosecution from command to prosecutors diminishes the role of those commanders.”
“We believe instead that it enhances their role and places them in the lead of taking care of their people — the No. 1 job of commanders — and creating climates of no tolerance for sexual assault, sexual harassment and related crimes,” one of the officials said.
The report recommends the reforms to the Uniform Code of Military Justice take effect in 2023 in order to have enough time to build the new structure of special victims prosecutors, according to the document.
Among the findings of the IRC — which spoke to 600 people, including survivors, researchers, former service members, commanders, junior and senior enlisted members and advocates — was that there is a “troubling gap between what senior leaders say about this problem and how junior enlisted members experience the problem,” the official said.
“We have heard for many years that there is no tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual assault, but we learned that in practice there is quite a lot of tolerance,” the official added.
The commission also found “critical deficiencies” in the workforce, including a lack of experience and specialization.
“The workforce dedicated to Sexual Assault Prevention and Response (SAPR) is not adequately structured and resourced to do this important work. Many failures in prevention and response can be attributed to inexperienced lawyers and investigators, collateral-duty (part-time) SAPR victim advocates, and the near-total lack of prevention specialists,” the report states.
“We often hear that prevention is the key to solving this problem, but we learned that there aren’t actually prevention specialists working across the services to make that happen,” the official said. “There is a lack of an evidence-informed, public health approach to prevention.”
Because of that, the report recommends the development of a prevention workforce.
The report also recommends ways to improve unit climate, including better methods to select, develop and evaluate leaders, such as using “narrative and qualitative” data for evaluations so there is a “fuller picture” of command climate issues, the official said. Additionally, the report calls for enhancements to the climate survey process and greater transparency about disciplinary actions.
Among the recommendations meant to improve victim care and support, the IRC calls for shifting sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates out of the command structure so that they are “free of any sort of command influence over what kind of services the victim receives,” the official said.
With Austin accepting the IRC’s recommendations, work now turns to implementing them, another official said. The White House and the Pentagon will consult with each other over the “next few months” on implementation and will also work with Congress on any legislative changes needed, the official added.
Austin has asked Biden for “the grace to, in his own words, ‘measure twice and cut once,’ as he thinks through implementation,” the official said, adding Biden “really fully supports that approach.”
In his memo, Austin said he was tapped Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks to develop an “implementation roadmap” for him to review “within 60 days.” After he approves the roadmap, the under secretary of Defense for personnel and readiness will be tasked with carrying out the plan in consultation with the general counsel, military departments and other components, Austin added.
“Our most critical asset as a department is our people, and our people and readiness are inextricably linked,” Austin wrote. “Our values and expectations remain at the core of addressing this problem, and I have every confidence that our force will get this right. Now is the time to lead. And we will lead.”
—Updated at 11:37 a.m.