Seth Wenig / AP
The Senate Armed Services Committee has approved a broad legislative package aimed at reforming the way the military prosecutes serious crimes, giving the lawmaker leading the multi-year effort a major victory.
Behind closed doors, the panel incorporated New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand’s measure as part of the annual Defense Bill, also known as the National Defense Authorization Act or NDAA.
For weeks this summer, Gillibrand openly argued in the Senate with fellow Democrat, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed of Rhode Island, to get his measure approved. On Wednesday evening, the two men issued a joint statement welcoming a new agreement.
“We are proud to announce that the committee has introduced a strong bill that brings historic changes to the military justice system and combats the scourge of military sexual assault,” Gillibrand and Reed said Wednesday evening after a meeting of a day of the armed services committee. “We look forward to working together to bring this bill to the Senate and make NDAA law.”
Divisions within the committee and both sides blocked action
Previously, Reed had opposed the broader goals of Gillibrand’s legislation to move all crimes – not just sexual assault – up the chain of command into the hands of trained military prosecutors. Now, the defense measure approved by the committee includes Gillibrand’s so-called Improving Military Justice and Increasing Prevention Act, a Senate adviser confirmed to NPR.
The defense bill is now heading to the Senate prosecution and facing a new set of hurdles in the House where some objections remain. Traditionally, the authorization bill enjoys broad bipartisan support, but the effort to overhaul the way the military handles crimes has met with constant objections from Pentagon leaders and key members. of Congress since its introduction eight years ago.
For example, those concerns remained even as Gillibrand secured key Republican support in the Senate, including that of Iowa GOP Senator Chuck Grassley, who signed as a co-sponsor since 2013.
However, that dynamic changed earlier this year, after Gillibrand joined forces with Republican Senator from Iowa Joni Ernst, a sexual assault survivor before becoming a veteran combat company commander. Increasingly, Ernst and others have pointed out the need for radical change as statistics show sexual assault crimes rise through the ranks despite further legislative fixes.
“We are bonded and determined,” Ernst told NPR in May.
It was a game-changer as a new wave of former holdouts joined forces with the duo to become co-sponsors, giving the bill the 60 votes needed to get its passage in the Senate.
Transferring the cases of commanders to criminal prosecutors
The legislation would keep serious crimes under military control, but allow such cases to be handled by criminal justice lawyers with the relevant expertise rather than by commanders who often lack legal training. Gillibrand and other supporters have said the plan must go beyond sex crimes and include all major crimes, such as murder, manslaughter and child pornography.
“These are difficult cases, and these are cases that deserve a professional review properly without bias,” Gillibrand told NPR last month.
Also in June, several key members of the House, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Democratic Representative Jackie Speier of California, endorsed the Senate’s plan to overhaul the military justice system, further increasing the odds of the measure.
For years, Speier sponsored his own bill to keep sex crimes away from military commanders. Now, a new group of bipartisan House members have gathered around the larger plan.
“We are here today for the military who spoke out or who suffered in silence because the message and the culture in the army are clear: shut up, suck it up and don’t shake the boat”, Speier told reporters. last month.
This, as President Biden and top military leaders have shared public support to at least remove commanders from serious sex crimes. However, they did not endorse the legislation’s broader goals to remove other crimes from the chain of command.
This month, an independent review found that commanders are woefully ill-prepared to deal with sexual crime and harassment. This followed new support from Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to amend the Uniform Code of Justice to transfer sexual assault cases to independent military lawyers.
Earlier in May, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was abandoning his opposition to the plan to remove cases of sexual assault from commanders.
Reed agreed with Pentagon leaders. And his objections to Gillibrand’s broader efforts have blocked movement on the issue in recent months.
Gillibrand persisted, speaking at least 20 times since May to quickly get her plan approved, arguing that she and other co-sponsors had the votes. Gillibrand, who has served on the Armed Services Committee for the past decade, has repeatedly stated that she is determined to finally reach the finish line of her plan this year.
“I asked for a vote in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020,” Gillibrand said during a Senate debate in May. “And I was refused every time.”
But she and other supporters have repeatedly encountered objections from Reed, who argued that the bill should go through the normal order of the committee process.
“I oppose it,” Reed said in a recent confrontation Monday.
Other senators also joined the series of debates. Other opponents of the reforms included the Senate Armed Services Rankings, Republican Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma and GOP Senator from South Carolina Lindsey Graham, a former military lawyer.
“I respect Senator Gillibrand very much, and she is very passionate about it. All I can say is that passion and justice must be measured, and we must make decisions based on facts, not just on a result we would love, ”Graham said in a ground objection last month. “When we start talking about cases where someone has been acquitted and like that was the wrong result, it really scares me.”
In the military, commanders who are not lawyers can choose the serious criminal cases to be tried. This means that leaders who are pilots, infantry officers, or in other positions may be tasked with making important legal decisions with little or no experience.
Proponents argue that Gillibrand’s legislation protects both the rights of victims and the rights of defendants. This includes, for example, a serviceman facing a serious crime worried about his rights as an accused when he already has an acrimonious relationship with his current commander.
“I started asking for a floor-level vote since May 24. Since then, it is estimated that 3,136 soldiers have been raped or sexually assaulted and more have been victims of other serious crimes,” Gillibrand told the Senate on Monday.
“While I am encouraged to see, after many years of pushing for reform, the growing number of our colleagues, the Defense Ministry and the President, have recognized that we must eliminate sexual assault and related crimes. like domestic violence. of command “, continued Gillibrand, “But it is simply not enough. ”