Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance

Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance
© Greg Nash

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandEquilibrium/ Sustainability — Presented by NextEra Energy — Clean power repurposes dirty power Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE’s (D-N.Y.) proposal to overhaul the military justice system has made it past the Senate Armed Services Committee’s consideration of the annual defense policy bill — but so have two other competing proposals aimed at tackling military sexual assault.

In addition to Gillibrand’s proposal, amendments from Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack ReedJack ReedSenate panel votes to make women register for draft Senators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE (D-R.I.) and committee member Sen. Thom TillisThomas (Thom) Roland TillisSenators hail 'historic changes' as competing proposals to tackle military sexual assault advance Bipartisan group says it's still on track after setback on Senate floor Overnight Defense: Military justice overhaul included in defense bill | Pentagon watchdog to review security of 'nuclear football' | Pentagon carries out first air strike in Somalia under Biden MORE (R-N.C.) were also approved during Wednesday night’s closed-door markup of the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

The outcome means the issue of how to reform the military justice system will still need to be sorted out as the NDAA moves through the Senate floor and negotiations with the House.

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“I think we all came out of the markup with the recognition that we’ll have to reconcile some of the issues, and we will over the course of not only the floor, but also the conference,” Reed told The Hill on Thursday afternoon.

Gillibrand, for her part, held that the three proposals are not in conflict.

“This is an extraordinary moment of collaborative effort to change things for the better,” she told reporters. “Every one of the proposals by the three main authors actually combine and work very well together. I think the only thing that is in conflict is timing.”

Reed and Gillibrand have butted heads for months over how broadly to reform the military justice system.

Following Wednesday night’s closed door consideration of the NDAA, Gillibrand and Reed issued a joint statement hailing the “historic changes” that are in the bill, but did not elaborate on what they were.

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“We are proud to announce the committee has put forth a strong bill that makes historic changes to the military justice system and combats the scourge of military sexual assault,” they said. “We look forward to working together to bring this bill to the Senate floor and making the NDAA law.”

A Senate aide had confirmed Gillibrand’s proposal, which she successfully inserted into the personnel subcommittee’s portion of the bill Tuesday, survived the full committee’s consideration of the bill, but did not know what else made it in.

A second Senate aide, asked about the outcome, said only that “it’s complicated.”

Under Gillibrand’s proposal, the decision to prosecute most major crimes would be taken away from commanders and given to independent prosecutors. That includes sexual assault, but also other serious crimes such as murder.

Reed’s proposal, though, is more narrowly focused on sex crimes in line with what the Pentagon supports.

The Pentagon’s position represents a shift from years of opposition to removing commanders from decision making on any crime.

The shift came after an Independent Review Commission empaneled by Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinOvernight Defense: US launches another airstrike in Somalia | Amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to NDAA | No. 2 State Dept. official to lead nuclear talks with Russia Warren-backed amendment to expand Pentagon recusal period added to defense bill Pentagon chief to restore advisory panels after purge of Trump loyalists MORE to find new ways to stamp out sexual assault in the military recommend sexual assault and related crimes be removed from the chain of command. But the department has continued to oppose Gillibrand’s broader proposal.

Tillis declined to comment Thursday on what his amendment does, citing a policy not to comment until the committee officially releases the information. But Reed said Tillis’s proposal also covers murder. 

Gillibrand also said Tillis’s amendment would create special victims prosecutors two years after the bill is enacted, compared to her proposal to take serious crimes out of the chain of command in six months.

Gillibrand said she plans to release a memo outlining “how all three actually work extremely well together.”

One of the issues that will have to be worked out as the bill moves forward, Reed said, “is to make sure that there's adequate time to implement it and also to ensure that we do it right.”

Military leaders argue Gillibrand’s broader proposal could compromise “good order and discipline” by undermining commanders’ authority.

Gillibrand, whose proposal is co-sponsored by 66 senators, argues the broader reform is needed because sex crimes are often interwoven with other crimes, such as in the case of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was sexually harassed by a supervisor before being killed last year, allegedly by another soldier at Fort Hood.

Gillibrand and her supporters have also expressed concern about creating a “pink court” that segregates crimes mostly involving women, stigmatizing victims. Further, they argue, there are racial disparities in military prosecutions that could be helped by taking more crimes out of the chain of command.