Defense Secretary Reverses Pentagon Stance on Sexual-Assault Prosecutions
(Bloomberg) -- Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin threw his support behind sweeping changes to the way the military prosecutes sexual assault cases in a major turnabout for the Pentagon, which has long resisted doing so despite an increase in sex crimes and harassment in the ranks.
Austin said Tuesday that he would recommend to President Joe Biden that prosecution of sex-related crimes be removed from the U.S. military’s chain of command, a key demand by some members of Congress and advocates for victims who say commanders too often protect alleged wrongdoers from prosecution.
Austin made the announcement after receiving a report by an advisory commission that began investigating the problem earlier this year and defended it at a House hearing on Wednesday.
“It provides us real opportunities to finally end the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military,” Austin said in a statement. He said the Defense Department “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.”
Even though Austin’s position represents a reversal for the Pentagon, it may no longer be enough to quell debate in Congress.
Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, has introduced a bill that would revamp how the armed forces prosecutes all serious offenses, not only sexual assault, by taking away commanders’ authority over whether to send cases to trial. Independent military prosecutors would make such decisions.
“They have made no progress on increasing their conviction rate, increasing the number of cases going to trial -- and the scourge of sexual assault is persistent, at approximately 20,000 cases,” Gillibrand told Bloomberg in an interview Tuesday.
Read More: Changes Must Be Made for Major Crimes in Military, Senator Says
But Gillibrand, a senior member of the Armed Services Committee, has been rebuffed repeatedly by Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a fellow Democrat, and Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, the panel’s top Republican, when she’s tried to bring up her legislation for a vote in the Senate.
On Tuesday, Inhofe released letters from the military service chiefs, who contend that taking major crimes out of the chain of command could backfire on prevention efforts.
General Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that “in the specific and limited circumstance of sexual assault, I remain open-minded to all solutions,” according to the letter Inhofe released.
Milley, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday, said that he and all the service chiefs “are in alignment” with Austin’s position on handling sexual assault incidents.
Even so, military leaders as well as Reed and Inhofe are about to face more pressure from supporters of Gillibrand’s measure. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backs legislation authored by Jackie Speier of California and Ohio Republican Mike Turner, two senior members of the House Armed Services Committee, that mirrors Gillibrand’s and touches on all major crimes.
Speier praised Austin’s statement during the Wednesday hearing, saying she was “deeply grateful” for his remarks. “You’re a man of your word,” she said.
Austin acted on the recommendations from the commission led by Lynn Rosenthal, who during the Obama administration became the first White House adviser on violence against women.
Rosenthal said in a Defense Department news release in February that she considered Austin “our greatest asset in fighting this problem.”
“He gets it so deeply. He cares about it so much,” she said.
Austin said he planned to present his recommendations about the independent commission’s findings to Biden in the coming days. The president has already telegraphed his support for taking the decision to prosecute sexual assault crimes out of the chain of command.
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