Defense Secretary Backs Changes to Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

WASHINGTON — Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III advised to lawmakers on Thursday that he supported adjustments to the way in which the army handles sexual assault circumstances, however he declined to endorse a measure lengthy pushed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, that may reduce the army chain of command out of the prosecution of many different severe crimes as effectively.

Mr. Austin’s help for adjustments round sexual assault circumstances represents a serious shift for army management, which has lengthy resisted calls to finish the follow of dealing with such circumstances via the chain of command. But his opposition to broader adjustments to the army justice system proposed by Ms. Gillibrand may arrange a showdown between a bipartisan group of senators and the Pentagon.

“Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Mr. Austin mentioned in 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.”

Rather than embrace Ms. Gillibrand’s invoice, Mr. Austin appeared to endorse the suggestions of a panel he appointed to research the difficulty earlier this 12 months. That panel really helpful that impartial army legal professionals 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 issues of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Mr. Austin mentioned, “are the problems we are trying to resolve and improve.”

President Biden has signaled his help for Ms. Gillibrand’s broader strategy, at the least for now. Her invoice has gained help from at the least 70 members of the Senate — together with many who voted towards the identical invoice in 2014, arguing it will 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 he has been working behind the scenes with Pentagon officers to rein it in.

“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 mentioned, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the inspiration of the American army authorized system. “You have my commitment to that, and also my commitment to working expeditiously as you consider legislative proposals.”

Mr. Austin’s remarks may set off an intense political battle about which strategy Congress will take. It will 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 could possibly be compelled to decide sides in figuring out the measure’s destiny.

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 mentioned.

Ms. Gillibrand and one of her Republican colleagues on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, additional pressed Mr. Austin on his views of the difficulty throughout the listening to. Ms. Gillibrand advised that failure to embody different severe crimes within the laws would contribute to racial disparities in court-martial circumstances, which appeared to be half of a method to attraction to the remaining skeptical members of Congress and Mr. Austin.

But whereas Mr. Austin took pains to reward Ms. Gillibrand’s work on the matter over the past decade, he additionally signaled that he didn’t help the broad nature of her laws.

Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, has bipartisan backing for her strategy to overhauling the army justice system.Credit…Stefani Reynolds for The New York Times

“Whatever changes occur going forward will be largely due to your incredible dedication to this issue,” he advised Ms. Gillibrand. “As you know, Senator, I always have an open mind to solving any tough problem,” he mentioned, including that his fee had been centered on sexual assault and harassment.

When he was confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Austin mentioned that dealing extra forcefully with sexual assault could be a prime precedence. In February, he appointed the impartial fee to study the difficulty and provides suggestions that he and the service chiefs may think about.

The members of the panel are looking for to create a brand new profession observe within the Defense Department during which decide advocates basic — army legal professionals — could be specifically educated to cope with such circumstances. This alone could be a serious shift in how the army does issues. Mr. Austin has mentioned he needs the service chiefs to assessment the suggestions.

Kathleen Hicks, the deputy protection secretary and the primary girl to serve within the No. 2 position on the Pentagon, and General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have each mentioned they’ve turn out to be satisfied that the present system doesn’t serve victims effectively.

“I have some evidence, some studies, some anecdotal evidence that junior members of the military, primarily women, have lost faith and confidence in our chain of command to resolve sexual assault through the chain of command,” General Milley mentioned Thursday.

But bringing in different felonies to any overhaul of the army justice system, he mentioned, “requires some detailed study,” including that he had “a complete open mind on this.”

A report out of Fort Hood, Texas, final 12 months that detailed a tradition of harassment and abuse gave gas to Ms. Gillibrand’s measure and parallel efforts within the House.

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

Leaving the listening to, Ms. Gillibrand appeared undeterred in her push for her personal laws.

“This is something that the majority of the committee has already formed a view on,” she advised reporters. “There are so few pieces of legislation in Congress today that both Liz Warren and Ted Cruz support, one that both Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell support. This is widely bipartisan, has the majority of the committee, and this is not a new issue.”

Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.