WASHINGTON – Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III suggested to lawmakers Thursday that he supports changes to the way the military handles sexual assault cases, but he declined to endorse a measure long pushed by New York Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who would cut the military chain of command out of prosecuting many other serious crimes.
Mr. Austin’s support for changes in sexual assault cases represents a major shift in military leadership, which has long resisted calls to end the practice of handling such cases through the chain of command. But her opposition to the broader changes to the military justice system proposed by Ms. Gillibrand could set up a confrontation between a bipartisan group of senators and the Pentagon.
“Obviously, what we did did not work,” Austin said in a speech to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “An assault is too much. The number of sexual assaults is still too high and confidence in our system is still too low.
Rather than pass Ms Gillibrand’s bill, Mr Austin appeared to endorse the recommendations of a panel of experts he appointed to study the matter earlier this year. This panel recommended that independent military lawyers take on the role commanders currently play in deciding whether to court martial people accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence.
“The issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Mr. Austin said, “are the issues that we are trying to address and improve upon.”
President Biden has signaled his support for Ms Gillibrand’s broader approach, at least for now. His bill won the support of at least 70 Senate members – many of whom voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing it would undermine commanders – and key House members.
Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and Chairman of the Armed Services Committee, believes Ms. Gillibrand’s bill goes too far, and he has worked behind the scenes with Pentagon officials to bring it under control.
“I want to be sure that whatever changes to the UCMJ that I recommend to the president and ultimately to this committee are relevant to the problem we are trying to solve, that they have a clear path for implementation and ultimately restore confidence. force in the system, ”said Austin, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the foundation of the US military legal system. “You have my commitment in this regard, as well as my commitment to work expeditiously as you consider legislative proposals. “
Mr Austin’s remarks could spark an intense political battle over which approach Congress will take. He will test Ms Gillibrand’s power among her bipartisan allies in the Senate, including Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat and majority leader, who may be forced to choose sides to determine the fate of the measure.
In either case, it seems clear that the commanders are almost certain to lose full control of the sexual assault prosecution. “Change is happening to the ministry,” said Mr. Reed.
Ms Gillibrand and one of her Republican colleagues on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, further urged Mr Austin on his views on the matter during the hearing. Ms Gillibrand suggested that not including other serious crimes in the legislation would contribute to racial disparities in court martial cases, which appeared to be part of a strategy to appeal to other skeptical members of Congress and to Mr. Austin.
But while Mr Austin was careful to praise Ms Gillibrand’s work on the issue over the past decade, he also signaled that he did not support the broad nature of his legislation.
“Whatever changes happen in the future, they will be in large part due to your incredible dedication to this issue,” he told Ms. Gillibrand. “As you know, senator, I always have an open mind to solve any difficult problem,” he said, adding that his commission had focused on sexual assault and harassment.
When confirmed by the Senate, Austin said a stronger fight against sexual assault would be a top priority. In February, he appointed the independent commission to look into the matter and make recommendations that he and department heads could consider.
Panel members are looking to create a new career at the Defense Ministry in which Judge Advocates General – military lawyers – would be specially trained to handle such cases. That alone would be a major change in the way the military does things. Mr. Austin said he wanted department heads to review the recommendations.
Kathleen Hicks, Assistant Secretary of Defense and the first woman to hold the No. 2 position at the Pentagon, and General Mark A. Milley, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, both said they had become convinced that the current system not serving victims well.
“I have evidence, studies, anecdotal evidence that junior members of the military, mostly women, have lost faith and confidence in our chain of command to resolve chain of command sexual assaults,” said Thursday General Milley.
But introducing other crimes into any overhaul of the military justice system, he said, “requires detailed study”, adding that he was “completely open-minded about it.”
A report from Fort Hood, Texas last year that detailed a culture of harassment and abuse fueled Ms Gillibrand’s parallel measure and efforts in the House.
In 2019, the Ministry of Defense found that there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault involving military personnel as victims, a 3% increase from 2018. The conviction rate for cases remained. unchanged from 2018 to 2019; 7% of cases the command took action on resulted in a conviction, the lowest rate since the department began reporting sexual assault cases in 2010.
Coming out of the hearing, Ms Gillibrand did not seem discouraged in her efforts for her own legislation.
“This is something the majority of the committee has already made up its mind,” she told reporters. “There are so few laws in Congress today that Liz Warren and Ted Cruz support, one that Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell support. It’s largely bipartisan, with a majority of the committee, and it’s not a new problem. “
Jonathan weisman contributed reports.