Defense Secretary Backs Changes to Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

Lloyd Austin signaled support for the removal of sexual assault cases from the military chain of command, but declined to support a broader measure to tackle other serious crimes.

Washington — Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III suggested to lawmakers on Thursday that he supported a change in the way military assault cases are handled, but he declined to support a measure long pushed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a Democrat from New York, who was asked by prosecutors. Will cut the command of the military chain in many other serious crimes as well.

Austin’s support for change in sexual assault cases represents a major shift for the military leadership, which has long resisted calls to end the practice of handling such cases through the chain of command. . But her opposition to sweeping changes to the military justice system proposed by Ms. Gillibrand could set off a showdown between a bipartisan group of senators and the Pentagon.

“Clearly, what we are doing is not working,” Austin said in remarks before the Senate Armed Services Committee. “One attack is too many. The number of sexual assaults is still too high, and trust in our system is still too low.”

Instead of accepting Ms Gillibrand’s bill, Mr Austin appeared to support the recommendations of a panel appointed to study the issue earlier this year. That panel recommended that independent military lawyers take over the role that commanders currently play in deciding whether to court-martial someone accused of sexual assault, sexual assault or domestic violence.

“Sexual harassment and sexual harassment issues,” Austin said, “are problems we are trying to solve and improve.”

President Biden has signaled his support for Ms Gillibrand’s broader approach, at least for now. Her bill has received the support of at least 70 members of the Senate – including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing that it would undermine commanders – and key members of the House.

Senator Jack Reid, a Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, believes Gillibrand’s bill has gone too far, and is working behind the scenes with Pentagon officials to rein it in. Huh.

“I want to make sure that any changes I recommend to the President, and ultimately this committee, to the UCMJ, that they are within the scope of the problem we are trying to solve, have a clear path on implementation, and ultimately Restore faith in the system of force,” Austin said, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the foundation of the US military legal system. “You are my commitment to that, and so is my commitment to act fast when considering legislative proposals.”

Mr Austin’s remarks could trigger an intense political battle about which approach Congress will take. It will test Ms Gillibrand’s power among her bipartisan Senate colleagues, including Senator Chuck Schumer, New York’s Democrat and majority leader, who may be forced to take sides to determine the fate of the measure.

In any event, it seems clear that the commanders are certain to lose complete control over sexual assault lawsuits. “Change is coming to the department,” said Mr. Reid.

Ms. Gillibrand and one of her Republican aides on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, pressed Austin over their views on the issue during the hearing. Ms Gillibrand suggested the failure to include other serious offenses in the law would have contributed to racial disparities In court-martial cases, that seemed part of a strategy to appeal to the remaining skeptical members of Congress and Mr.

But while Mr. Austin took pains to praise Ms. Gillibrand’s work on the matter over the past decade, he also indicated that he does not support the broad nature of her legislation.

“Whatever changes that come next will be because of your incredible dedication to the cause,” he told Ms. Gillibrand. “As you know, Senator, I have always had an open mind to solve any difficult problem,” he said, adding that his commission was focused on sexual harassment and harassment.

When confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Austin said tackling sexual harassment more firmly would be a top priority. In February, he appointed an independent commission to investigate the issue and make recommendations that he and the army chief could consider.

Panel members are calling for a new career track in the Defense Department in which judge advocate generals — military lawyers — would be specially trained to deal with such cases. This alone will be a major change in how the military works. Mr Austin has said he wants the service chief to review the recommendations.

Kathleen Hicks, Deputy Secretary of Defense and the first woman to serve in the number 2 role at the Pentagon, and General Mark A Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, has both said they have become convinced the current system does not serve the victims well.

General Milley said on Thursday, “I have some evidence, some studies, some anecdotal evidence that junior members of the military, primarily women, believe in our chain of command to solve sexual harassment through the chain of command.” And faith is lost.”

But bringing other crimes to any change of the military justice system, he said, “needs some detailed study,” adding that he “had a completely open mind on this.”

A report last year from Fort Hood, Texas, which detailed a culture of harassment and abuse, fueled Ms. Gillibrand’s measurement and parallel. efforts at home.

In 2019, Defense Department found That there were 7,825 reports of sexual harassment of service members as victims, an increase of 3 percent from 2018. The conviction rate for the cases was unchanged from 2018 to 2019; The 7 percent of cases that the command acted on resulted in convictions, the lowest rate since the department began reporting sexual harassment cases in 2010.

Except for the hearing, Ms Gillibrand seemed adamant in pushing for a law of her own.

“This is something on which the majority of the committee has already formed a view,” she told reporters. “There are so few pieces of legislation in Congress today that both Liz Warren and Ted Cruz support, one that both Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell support. It’s broadly bipartisan, has a committee majority, and it’s not a new issue. is not.”

Jonathan Weisman Contributed reporting.

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