Gillibrand slams committee leadership, Pentagon for military justice reform cuts

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandTlaib blasts Biden judicial nominee whose firm sued environmental lawyer The Hill's 12:30 Report - Presented by Connected Commerce Council - Biden faces reporters as his agenda teeters Former aide says she felt 'abandoned' by Democrats who advanced Garcetti nomination as ambassador to India MORE (D-N.Y.) on Wednesday blasted House and Senate Armed Services committee leadership and the Pentagon for kneecapping her decade-long effort to overhaul how the military handles sexual assault cases.

Gillibrand’s legislation, a major overhaul of how the military prosecutes nearly all serious crimes, was watered down to a narrower change for prosecuting sexual assault and related crimes before being inserted into the annual defense policy bill passed by the House Tuesday night.

The new military justice reform language, while still significant, was a compromise negotiated behind closed doors by the chairmen and ranking members of the two committees to move forward the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA).

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“This bill does not reform the military justice system in a way that will truly help survivors get justice,” Gillibrand told reporters alongside Sens. Joni ErnstJoni Kay ErnstUS maintains pressure on Russia amid concerns of potential Ukraine invasion Sunday shows - Russia standoff over Ukraine dominates GOP senator says US should impose sanctions on Russia MORE (R-Iowa), Chuck GrassleyChuck GrassleySmall ranchers say Biden letting them get squeezed These Senate seats are up for election in 2022 Hillicon Valley — Senate panel advances major antitrust bill MORE (R-Iowa) and Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.). 

“The majority of our colleagues have recognized that our bill has the support of a bipartisan, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate and a majority in the House. But the will of those members was ignored in the NDAA, where committee leaders stripped out reforms from the bill behind closed doors, despite assurances that they would follow regular order.” 

The biggest difference between Gillibrand’s bill and the House-passed bill lies with how the military prosecutes serious crimes, including sexual assault. Gillibrand’s version would entirely remove military commanders from the chain of command in such cases, replacing them with independent military prosecutors.

The House’s version, meanwhile, would strip commanders of most of their authority to prosecute cases but still allow them to conduct the trials, pick jury members, approve witnesses and grant immunity, all things Gillibrand says compromises real independence.

“When the commander is so deeply involved in a case, there's no independence for the prosecutor and there's no perception of independence for the accused or the accuser,” she said. 

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The House’s bill also slashes the number of crimes handled by outside prosecutors to 11 from 38, and it allows commanders to keep the power to allow service members accused of crimes the option of separation from service instead of facing court martial. 

Gillibrand said the Pentagon also had a role in weakening the bipartisan military justice reform in favor of the status quo, calling Defense officials “extremely effective in misleading members of Congress” to make sure reform is “as minimal as possible.”

Defense Secretary Lloyd AustinLloyd AustinDefense & National Security — Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on high alert Pentagon puts 8,500 troops on higher alert over Russia-Ukraine tensions Special Operations Command's top general tests positive for COVID-19 MORE earlier this year pledged to prioritize combating sexual assault and harassment in the ranks and has voiced support for changes to how the military handles such cases.

But The New York Times reported Austin called members of Congress to prevent Gillibrand’s version of the bill from going forward.

To sidestep this, Gillibrand is now calling for a stand-alone vote for her original legislation, which she said has the support of both Senate Majority Leader Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerVoting rights failed in the Senate — where do we go from here? Forced deadline spurs drastic tactic in Congress Democrats call on Biden administration to ease entry to US for at-risk Afghans MORE (D-N.Y.) and Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiSenators huddle on Russia sanctions as tensions escalate Schumer requests Senate briefing on Ukraine amid Russia tensions Biden rushes to pressure Russia as Ukraine fears intensify MORE (D-Calif.).

Ernst, a veteran and a sexual assault survivor who helped Gillibrand pen her original proposal, also called for such a vote, pointing to the 66 co-sponsors on their bill as proof the Senate is overwhelmingly in support of the change.

“I am disappointed that we did not get every aspect of our bill included, and we should have the ability to do that,” Ernst said alongside Gillibrand. “In part, this is due to the broken National Defense Authorization Act process we saw this year.”