Minister of Defence Lloyd J. Austin III suggested to lawmakers on Thursday that he supports changes to the laws governing how the military handles cases of sexual assault, a major shift for military leadership, which has long resisted such changes.
"Obviously what we've done hasn't worked," said Mr. Austin said in his opening address to the Senate Armed Services Committee. “One attack is too many. The number of assaults is still too high and trust in our system is still too low.”
Mr Austin appeared to endorse the recommendations of a panel he appointed earlier this year to study the matter. That panel recommends independent military lawyers take over the role that commanders currently play in deciding whether to court martial those charged with assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence.
But he clearly stopped approving a measure long pushed by New York Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that exclude the military chain of command from decisions about sexual assault, but also fall outside the scope of prosecution for many other serious crimes.
President Biden has endorsed her approach, at least for now, and her bill has won the support of at least 70 members of the Senate — including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing it would undermine commanders, the long-held opinion of Pentagon leaders and key members in the House.
Rhode Island Democrat Senator Jack Reed and chair of the Armed Services Committee believes Ms Gillibrand's bill goes too far and has been working behind the scenes with Pentagon officials to implement it.
“I want to make sure that whatever changes about the U.C.M.J. that I commend the president and ultimately this committee that they focus on the problem we are trying to solve, have a clear path forward in implementation and ultimately restore the power's confidence in the system," said Mr. Austin, referring to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, which is the foundation of the U.S. military justice system, "You have my commitment to that, as well as my commitment to act swiftly in considering legislative proposals."
Mr. Austin's comments on Thursday could be the start of an intense political battle that will test Ms. Gillibrand's power among her bipartisan Senate allies, including New York Democrat and Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer, who could be forced to take sides. choose in determining the fate of the measure, and the White House.
In either case, it seems clear that commanders will almost certainly lose complete control over the prosecution of sexual assault. "Change is coming in the department," Mr Reed said on Thursday regarding the assault issue.
when he was confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Austin made sexual assault one of his first priorities. In February, he appointed the independent commission to investigate the matter and make recommendations for he and the heads of service to consider.
The members of the panel are looking for a new career path at the Ministry of Defense in which Judge Advocates General – military lawyers – are specially trained to deal with such cases. This alone would be a big change in the way the military does things. Mr Austin has said he wants the heads of departments to review the recommendations.
There has been momentum for such changes since Mr Biden was elected. Kathleen Hicks, the deputy secretary of defense and the first woman to hold the number 2 role at the Pentagon, and General Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, have both said they are convinced that the current system does not serve the victims well.
A report from Fort Hood, Texas, last year detailing a culture of harassment and abuse fueled Ms Gillibrand's measure and paralleled efforts in the House.
In 2019, the Ministry of Defense found that there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault involving service workers as victims, a 3 percent increase from 2018. The case conviction rate was unchanged from 2018 to 2019; 7 percent of the cases against which the command took action resulted in a conviction, the lowest percentage since the department began reporting in 2010.