WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Tuesday that he will work with Congress to remove sexual assault prosecutions from the military justice system, marking a dramatic about-face for the Pentagon, which for years has not meaningfully confronted an epidemic believed to affect thousands of personnel every year.
The acknowledgment came one day after Austin received recommendations and a comprehensive report from an independent commission that reviewed the issue, he said. Senior military officials have been resistant to the idea because oversight of disciplinary matters within the ranks is a long-standing military tradition that few are willing to surrender.
Austin said that he will present to President Joe Biden within days recommendations for change, which will require amendments to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, but that already he has seen enough to announce his intentions. The commission’s work “provides us real opportunities to finally end the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military,” the defense secretary said.
Despite extensive pressure from Congress and advocates for sexual assault survivors, senior defense officials have long argued that it is in the military’s best interests to allow commanders to oversee sexual assault cases in their ranks. But statistics show that the military has failed to address the situation.
The Pentagon’s shift comes as lawmakers consider the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, legislation proposed by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., that would remove control of sexual assault cases from commanders’ purview, and a day before bipartisan legislation aimed at similar changes is due to be introduced in the House.
The latter proposal is named after Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén, a soldier killed at Fort Hood in Texas last year. Guillén was sexually harassed by a superior in an unrelated incident, Army investigators concluded, but did not report it for fear of retaliation. Her name became a rallying cry for lawmakers and advocates to transform the prosecution of sex crimes involving those in uniform.
Austin said in his statement that solving the sexual assault problem requires not only greater accountability, but also changes in the Defense Department’s approach to prevention and victim’s services, and to the climate in some units.
“I am reviewing the full scope of the commission’s recommendations in these areas, but generally they appear strong and well-grounded,” Austin said. “I have directed my staff to do a detailed assessment and implementation plan for my review and approval.”
Austin said that the Defense Department will need “new resources and authorities” to put in place the commission’s changes. He offered no specifics and did not elaborate.
“We will most assuredly require additional resources, both in personnel and in funding,” Austin said. “But it may take us some time to determine how much and where they are most wisely applied.”
Austin’s announcement comes after the top uniformed officers in each military branch told Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s top Republican, that they have concerns about removing military commanders from the process. Inhofe opposes Gillibrand’s bill.
Army Gen. Mark Milley, chairperson of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said in a letter to Inhofe that removing commanders from the process “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.”
Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger said that, as written, the proposed Senate legislation could create other issues, such as delaying how long it takes to administer justice for deployed troops. Such issues could distract commanders, Berger said, without detailing how.
“We should guard against that outcome,” Berger said.
Inhofe said in a statement earlier Tuesday that he joins with military officials in “welcoming new ideas to tackle this problem” but does not believe from their responses that it is certain 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 openness in May to trying a new approach, conceding that military leaders “haven’t moved the needle” on stopping sexual assault and that data shows about 20,000 service members are sexually assaulted each year.
“We can’t tolerate that level of divisiveness in our force,” Milley said. “It cannot stand. It has to be resolved. So, yes, my mind is very open.”