Pentagon Failings on Sex Assaults Unite Lawmakers Pushing Change

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The U.S. military faces growing pressure to transform how it handles and prosecutes sexual assaults, murders and other major crimes from an unusual alliance of Republican and Democratic senators who are pitted against the Pentagon and some of its top overseers.

Missouri Republican Josh Hawley and New York Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, who typically operate at opposite ends of the political spectrum, have partnered on a measure introduced Tuesday to improve the Pentagon’s response to sexual assaults. The proposal comes after years of outside pressure have failed to change how the Pentagon prosecutes crimes in the ranks. The killing of Army Specialist Vannessa Guillén at Fort Hood has become a catalyst for congressional action, after her family said she had been sexually harassed before she was murdered.

Pentagon Failings on Sex Assaults Unite Lawmakers Pushing Change

The legislation would seek to professionalize the military justice system by requiring the Pentagon to increase training and other resources for sexual assault response coordinators, as well as evaluate the programs and report the findings to Congress. Republicans Joni Ernst of Iowa and Kevin Cramer of North Dakota and Democrat Ben Cardin of Maryland are also bill sponsors.

“This legislation would aid the Department of Defense in identifying next steps to professionalize the role of Sexual Assault Response Coordinator throughout all branches of the military — a role that requires adequate training, resources, and support to provide service members with the best care possible,” Hawley said in a statement.

Pentagon Failings on Sex Assaults Unite Lawmakers Pushing Change

The military’s coordinator program for sexual assaults came under scrutiny after Guillén’s death, when a report showed members of the coordination team lacked the training to support victims.

“I’m proud to co-lead this bipartisan legislation as we work to eradicate the scourge of sexual assault in our military,” Gillibrand said.

Chain of Command

The new legislation complements Gillibrand’s marquee bill that seeks to move decisions on whether to prosecute major crimes out of the military chain of command. Gillibrand’s bill, which has 62 cosponsors, would create a special office to make decisions about crimes including rape, murder and child pornography. The measure would strip military commanders of their power to decide which crimes in should be prosecuted, leaving those determinations to independent prosecutors.

President Joe Biden threw his support behind the changes, which Gillibrand has sought for years, during his presidential campaign. And a Pentagon panel last month appeared to agree, making an initial recommendation that an independent military prosecutor should handle decisions to prosecute service members for sexual assault and harassment. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin suggested he may support such a shift but has sidestepped a clear commitment to the bill.

In a major shift, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman, said on May 23 that he supported taking decisions on sexual assault cases out of the chain of command.

But on Monday, Reed and James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the panel’s top Republican, blocked an effort by Gillibrand and Ernst to bring up the legislation for a vote, arguing it was better handled as part of the annual defense policy bill to be taken up later this year.

“The Armed Services Committee has lost its opportunity to have sole jurisdiction over this issue,” Gillibrand said on the Senate floor on Monday. “We deserve a floor vote, and we deserve a process that cannot be undermined by the committee.”

The change to how the military prosecutes sexual assaults and other crimes also has some high-level supporters in the House from Armed Services Chairman Adam Smith of Washington and Jackie Speier of California, who leads the panel’s personnel subcommittee.

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