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Pentagon chief backs major change in how military handles sexual assault cases

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Thursday signaled to lawmakers that he supported the removal of commanders of the authority necessary to decide whether troops accused of sexual assault should be prosecuted.

A change to place such decisions in the hands of independent judicial authorities would amount to a radical change in the way the military handles cases of sexual assault.

Austin plans to make his recommendation to President Joe Biden in the coming weeks, according to a defense official.

“As I said before, what we are doing is not working and we need to fix it,” Austin said in testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

“I want to be sure that whatever changes [Uniform Code of Military Justice] I recommend that the chair – and ultimately this committee – focus on the problem we’re trying to solve, have a clear path for implementation, and ultimately restore confidence of force in the system. “

Austin did not explicitly endorse particular changes in the way the military has long handled sexual assault allegations, but the defense official said Austin’s position aligned with recommendations from a Pentagon panel set up to study the matter.

The Austin commission recommended that independent military lawyers – rather than commanders – decide whether to court martial people accused of sexual assault or harassment. Lawmakers, including Democratic Senator Kristin Gillibrand of New York, have long demanded such a change as the only way to tackle the problem that has plagued the military for decades.

“Obviously, what we did didn’t work,” Austin said Thursday. “An assault is too much. The number of sexual assaults is still too high and confidence in our system is still too low.

Reports of sexual assault in the military have been on the rise since 2006, according to the Pentagon.

There have been a number of changes to the Military Justice Code over the past decade to add more civilian oversight to military prosecutions of sexual assault cases and to strengthen victim assistance. But the military has previously rejected proposed changes that would remove legal decisions from the chain of command.

After Austin makes his recommendation to the president, debate is likely to intensify in Congress, which must approve the changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

As a presidential candidate, Biden advocated removing the issue of sexual assault from the chain of command. “I will order the Defense Department to take urgent and aggressive action to ensure that survivors are indeed supported and that attackers are held accountable for their crimes,” Biden said in April 2020.

Earlier this month, General Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he was no longer opposed to decisions on sexual assault prosecutions no longer in the hands of the commanders.

“We’ve been working on it for years and we haven’t effectively moved the needle,” Milley said in an interview with The Associated Press. “We must. We must.”

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