Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced Tuesday that he will work with Congress to remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military justice system, a dramatic shift for the Pentagon, which has for years failed to address an epidemic that is thought to affect thousands of personnel each year.
Austin received the acknowledgement one day after receiving recommendations and a comprehensive report from an independent commission that investigated the issue, he said. Senior military officials have been resistant to the idea because disciplinary oversight within the ranks is a long-standing military tradition that few are willing to give up.
Austin stated that he will present to President Biden recommendations for change within days, which will necessitate changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but that he has seen enough to announce his intentions. The work of the commission “provides us with real opportunities to finally end the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military,” according to the defense secretary.
Despite intense pressure from Congress and advocates for sexual assault survivors, senior defense officials have long argued that allowing commanders to oversee sexual assault cases in their ranks is in the best interests of the military. However, statistics show that the military has done little to address the situation.
The Pentagon’s decision comes as lawmakers debate the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, legislation proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) that would remove control of sexual assault cases from commanders’ purview, and a day before bipartisan legislation aimed at similar changes is set to be introduced in the House.
The latter proposal is named after Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, who was killed last year at Fort Hood in Texas. According to Army investigators, Guillén was sexually harassed by a superior in an unrelated incident but did not report it for fear of retaliation. Her name became a rallying cry for lawmakers and advocates to change the way sex crimes involving members of the military are prosecuted.
In his statement, Austin stated that solving the sexual assault problem will necessitate not only increased accountability, but also changes in the Defense Department’s approach to prevention and victim services, as well as changes in the climate in some units.
“I am reviewing the full scope of the commission’s recommendations in these areas,” Austin said, “but they appear strong and well-grounded in general.” “I have instructed my staff to conduct a thorough assessment and implementation plan for my review and approval.”
Austin stated that the Defense Department will require “new resources and authorities” to implement the commission’s recommendations. He provided no details and did not elaborate.
“We will almost certainly require additional resources, both in terms of personnel and funding,” Austin predicted. “However, it may take some time for us to determine how much and where they are best applied.”
Austin’s announcement comes after the top uniformed officers in each military branch told Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, that they are concerned about the removal of military commanders from the process. Inhofe is opposed to Gillibrand’s legislation.
In a letter to Inhofe, Army Gen. Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stated that removing commanders from oversight of felony prosecutions “may have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, justice, unit cohesion, trust, and loyalty between commanders and those they lead.” However, when it comes to how sexual assault prosecutions are handled, Milley stated that he is open to “all solutions.”
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David H. Berger stated that the proposed Senate legislation, as written, could cause other issues, such as delaying the time it takes to administer justice to deployed troops. Such issues, according to Berger, could distract commanders, but he did not elaborate.
In a statement issued earlier Tuesday, Inhofe stated that he joins military officials in “welcoming new ideas to tackle this problem,” but that based on their responses, he does not believe the proposed legislation will prevent harm to “military readiness, mission accomplishment, and other attributes that make our military the very best in the world.”
Milley expressed willingness to try a new approach in May, admitting that military leaders “haven’t moved the needle” on ending sexual assault and that data shows that approximately 20,000 service members are sexually assaulted each year.