US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin suggested to lawmakers Thursday that he was in favor of changes to the way the military deals with cases of sexual violence. He refused, however, to approve a measure promoted by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York that would remove the military chain of command from the prosecution of many other serious crimes.
Austin’s support for changes in the handling of sexual assault cases represents a major shift in stance on the part of military leaders, who for years resisted calls to end the practice of prosecuting such cases by through its chain of command. But his opposition to the broader changes to the military justice system proposed by Gillibrand could spark a clash between the Pentagon and a bipartisan group of senators.
“It is clear that what we have done so far has not worked,” Austin told the Senate Armed Services Committee. “An assault that is too much. the number of sexual assaults is still high and confidence in our system is still very low.
In 2019, the Ministry of Defense recorded 7,825 allegations of sexual assault with military victims, an increase of 3% compared to 2018. The rate of convictions in the processes did not change from 2018 to 2019 : 7% of cases brought to justice by the military command resulted in a conviction. This was the lowest rate since the ministry began filing reports on sexual assault prosecutions in 2010.
Rather than embrace Gillibrand’s bill, Austin apparently endorsed the recommendations of a panel he himself appointed this year to study the matter. The panel recommended that independent military lawyers take on the role that commanders play today in deciding whether military personnel accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence should be brought to justice.
Austin said, “The issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment are the issues we want to solve and improve.”
President Joe Biden has indicated he supports Senator Gillibrand’s broader approach, at least for now. His bill has already received the support of at least 70 senators – many of whom voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing that it would weaken commanders – and top MPs.
Democratic Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said Gillibrand’s bill went too far. He worked with Pentagon officials behind the scenes to limit it.
“I want to make sure that any changes to the UCMJ that I recommend to the president and ultimately to this committee are appropriate to the problem we are trying to solve, that there is a clear path for their implementation, and that ‘they restore confidence in the strength of the system,’ said Austin, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, the cornerstone of the US military legal system. “I am committed to this and I am committed to working expeditiously as you consider legislative proposals.”
The defense secretary’s remarks could spark a fierce political battle over which approach Congress takes. This dispute will test Kirsten Gillibrand’s power among her bipartisan allies in the Senate, including Democrat Chuck Schumer, the House Majority Leader, who could eventually be forced to take sides in determining the fate of the measure. .
Either way, it is virtually certain that military commanders will lose full control over the processes of soldiers accused of sexual violence. “Transformations are happening in the department,” Reed said.
During the hearing, Gillibrand and one of his fellow Republican on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, pressured Austin to further clarify his perspective on the matter. Gillibrand has suggested that if other serious crimes are not included in the measure, it will contribute to racial disparities in court martial cases. The suggestion appears to have been part of a strategy to win over Austin and remaining skeptical lawmakers.
But while Austin praised the senator’s work on this issue over the past decade, he also stressed that he was not in favor of the broad nature of the legislation she advocates.
“Any changes that will be adopted in the future will be due in large part to your incredible dedication to this subject,” he told Gillibrand. “As you know, senator, I have always been open-minded to seek solutions to any intractable problem,” he continued, adding that his committee had focused on sexual assault and harassment.
When his appointment was confirmed by the Senate, Austin said one of his top priorities would be to punish sexual assault more severely. In February, he appointed an independent commission to look into the matter and come up with recommendations for him and the weapons commanders.
Panel members want to create a new career at the Defense Ministry in which military lawyers are specially trained to handle these cases. This in itself would represent a major change in the way the military operates. Austin wants gun commanders to review the recommendations.
Assistant Secretary of Defense Kathleen Hicks, the first woman to take the No. 2 role in the Pentagon, and General Mark Milley, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, expressed their belief that the current system does not stand up for victims .
Milley said on Thursday: “I have evidence, studies, showing that junior members of the military, especially women, have lost faith and confidence in our chain of command’s ability to resolve sexual assault cases. . “
But, he said, adding other crimes to any review of the military justice system “requires detailed study.” He said he had “a totally open mind on this”.
A report released last year in Fort Hood, Texas, detailing a culture of harassment and abuse, reinforced Gillibrand’s proposed measure and parallel efforts in the House.