Austin, Defense Secretary, Suggests Major Shift Needed on Military Sex Assault Crimes

Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III urged to lawmakers on Thursday that he supported modifications to the legal guidelines that govern how the navy handles sexual assault instances, however he declined to endorse a measure by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, that might minimize out the navy chain of command from different severe felonies.

Mr. Austin’s help for modifications round sexual assault instances represents a serious shift for navy management, which has lengthy resisted such modifications, however his opposition to Ms. Gillibrand’s proposed modifications to the navy justice system might arrange a possible showdown between a big group of senators and the Pentagon.

“Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Mr. Austin stated in his opening remarks earlier than the Senate Armed Services Committee. “One assault is too many. The numbers of sexual assaults are still too high, and the confidence in our system is still too low.”

Mr. Austin as an alternative appeared to endorse the suggestions of a panel he appointed to review the problem earlier this 12 months. That panel recommends that unbiased navy attorneys take over the position that commanders at the moment play in deciding whether or not to court-martial these accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or home violence.

“The issue of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Mr. Austin stated, “are the problems we are trying to resolve and improve.”

President Biden has endorsed Ms. Gillibrand’s strategy, no less than for now, and her invoice has gained help from no less than 70 members of the Senate — together with many who voted in opposition to the identical invoice in 2014, arguing it might undermine commanders — and key members within the House.

Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, believes Ms. Gillibrand’s invoice goes too far and has been working behind the scenes with Pentagon officers to vary it.

“I want to be sure that whatever changes to the U.C.M.J. that I recommend to the president and ultimately to this committee, that they are scoped to the problem we are trying to solve, have a clear way forward on implementation, and ultimately restore the confidence of the force in the system,” Mr. Austin stated, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the muse of the American navy authorized system. “You have my commitment to that, and also my commitment to working expeditiously as you consider legislative proposals.”

Mr. Austin’s remarks Thursday might set off an intense political battle that may take a look at the ability of Ms. Gillibrand amongst her bipartisan Senate allies together with Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the bulk chief, who may very well be compelled to choose sides in figuring out the measure’s destiny, and the White House.

In both occasion, it appears clear that commanders are all however sure to lose full management over sexual assault prosecutions. “Change is coming to the department,” Mr. Reed stated Thursday in reference to the problem.

Ms. Gillibrand and certainly one of her Republican colleagues on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, an Army veteran, pressed Mr. Austin additional on his views of the problem throughout the listening to. Ms. Gillibrand urged that preserving different crimes off the desk would contribute to racial disparities in court-martial instances, an argument that may very well be a part of a brand new technique to enchantment to each remaining skeptical members of Congress and Mr. Austin.

But whereas Mr. Austin took pains to reward Ms. Gillibrand’s work, crediting her “incredible dedication” for any modifications which can be made, he additionally made it pretty clear that he didn’t help the broad nature of her laws.

“As you know, Senator, I always have an open mind to solving any tough problem,” he stated, however added that his fee had been centered solely on sexual assault and harassment.

When he was confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Austin made sexual assault certainly one of his first priorities. In February, he appointed the unbiased fee to look at the problem and provides suggestions that he and the service chiefs might think about.

The members of the panel are looking for a brand new profession monitor within the Defense Department by which choose advocates normal — navy attorneys — can be specifically skilled to take care of such instances. This alone can be a serious shift in how the navy does issues. Mr. Austin has stated he needs the service chiefs to evaluate the suggestions.

In 2019, the Defense Department discovered that there have been 7,825 reviews of sexual assault involving service members as victims, a three p.c improve from 2018. The conviction charge for instances was unchanged from 2018 to 2019; 7 p.c of instances that the command took motion on resulted in conviction, the bottom charge because the division started reporting in 2010.

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.