WASHINGTON – Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said for the first time Tuesday that he would support long-debated changes to the military justice system that would remove decisions on prosecuting sexual assault cases by military commanders.
In a statement received from The Associated Press, Austin said he supported removing these sexual assault and related crimes from the chain of command and allowing them to be dealt with by independent military lawyers. The Pentagon has long opposed such a change, but Austin and other senior leaders are slowly recognizing that the military has made no headway against sexual assault and that some changes are needed.
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Austin pledged to work with Congress to make the changes, saying they would give the department “real opportunities to finally end the scourge of sexual assault and harassment in the military.” His public support for change has been eagerly awaited as it sends a strong signal to the military and builds momentum for change.
The statement came the day before Austin testified before the House of Representatives Armed Services Committee amid escalating pressures from Congress to take concrete steps against sexual assault. However, Austin’s memo does not contain any opinion on laws that will change the military justice system more broadly and require independent lawyers to deal with all major crimes.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, DN.Y., has the support of 66 senators for a law to force independent prosecutors to deal with crimes that require more than a year in prison. But other major lawmakers and military service leaders have resisted including all major crimes, saying control of all crimes by commanders could harm military readiness, undermine command, and require much more time and resources.
So far, Austin has publicly stated that he is open to changes recommended by an independent review board he has set up to investigate sexual assault and harassment in the military. The panel said sexual assault, sexual misconduct, domestic violence, stalking, retaliation, child sexual assault and the illicit distribution of photos should be removed from the chain of command.
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In the statement, Austin finally makes public that he supports the change, saying that these additional crimes should be included as there is a strong correlation between them and the prevalence of sexual assault. Austin has reservations about the broader change outlined in Gillibrand’s bill, similar to those voiced by its senior leaders, according to a defense official. The officer spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss private conversations.
Over the past few weeks, military service secretaries and chiefs in memos to Austin and letters to Capitol Hill have said they are cautious about the change in sexual assault and have expressed greater reservations about a broader transformation of the military justice system.
General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the dismissal of commanders from law enforcement decisions “could negatively affect readiness, mission fulfillment, order and discipline, justice, unitary cohesion, trust and loyalty between commanders and those who lead them.”
In a letter to Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the senior Republican on the Senate Armed Forces Committee, Milley admitted that the military had made insufficient progress in combating sexual assault. However, he has repeatedly said that he is open to the change in sexual assault.
The independent review body on Monday made extensive recommendations to Austin on combating sexual assault in the military, including prevention, leadership, victim care and support.
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“In general, they look strong and solid,” Austin said in his statement. “I have directed my staff to create a detailed assessment and implementation plan for my review and approval.”
Austin said he would make his recommendations to President Joe Biden in the coming days. But he also noted that the changes require additional staff, funding and authorities. Priority will be given to those that can be carried out under the existing authority, he said, and other changes may take more time and require help from Congress.
“As I made clear on my first full day in office, this is a leadership issue. And we will lead,” he said. “Our people depend on it. They deserve nothing less.”
In a recent interview with the AP, Gillibrand said the broader change was necessary to address racial injustice within the military, where studies have shown that black people are more likely to be investigated and arrested for misconduct.
Gillibrand has opposed restricting the amendment to sexual assault, as this would be discriminatory, and has set up a so-called “pink” court to deal with crimes that typically involve female victims.
“I am deeply concerned that it is really harmful to female service members if they limit themselves to sexual assault. It will further marginalize them, further undermine them and be seen as special treatment, “she told the AP.
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