WASHINGTON — Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III suggested to lawmakers on Thursday that he supported changes in the military's handling of sexual assault cases, but declined to approve a measure long pushed by New York Democrat Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, who lifted the military chain of command from the prosecution. would remove many other serious crimes.
Austin's support for changes in sexual assault cases represents a major shift for the military leadership, which has long resisted calls to end the practice of handling such cases through the chain of command. But his opposition to broader changes to the military justice system proposed by Ms. Gillibrand could spark a confrontation between a bipartisan group of senators and the Pentagon.
"Clearly what we've done hasn't worked," Mr Austin said in comments 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.”
Rather than embrace Ms Gillibrand's bill, Mr Austin appeared to endorse the recommendations of a panel he appointed earlier this year to study the issue. That panel recommended that independent military lawyers take over the role currently played by commanders in deciding whether to court-martial those accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or domestic violence.
"The problems of assault and sexual harassment," said Mr. Austin, "are the problems we are trying to solve and improve."
President Biden has expressed support for Ms Gillibrand's broader approach, at least for now. Her bill has garnered support from at least 70 members of the Senate — including many who voted against the same bill in 2014, arguing it would undermine commanders and key members in the House.
Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, believes Ms Gillibrand's bill goes too far, and he has been working behind the scenes with Pentagon officials to keep it in check.
“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 could spark an intense political battle over the approach Congress will take. It will test Ms Gillibrand's might among her bipartisan Senate allies, including New York Democrat and Majority Leader Senator Chuck Schumer, who could be forced to take sides in determining the fate of the measure.
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,” said Mr. Drove.
Ms. Gillibrand and one of her Republican colleagues on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, further pressed Mr. Austin for his opinion on the matter during the hearing. Ms Gillibrand suggested that not including other serious crimes in the legislation would contribute to: racial inequalities in military affairs, which appeared to be part of a strategy to appeal to the remaining skeptical members of Congress and Mr. Austin.
But while Mr Austin made an effort to praise Ms Gillibrand's work on this issue over the past decade, he also indicated that he did not support the broad nature of her legislation.
“Whatever changes in the future will be largely due to your incredible dedication to this issue,” he told Ms Gillibrand. "As you know, Senator, I'm always open to solving tough problems," he said, adding that his committee focused on sexual assault and harassment.
when he was Confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Austin said taking a more vigorous approach to tackling sexual assault would be a top priority. 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 trying to create a new career path in 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.
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 have become convinced that the current system is not serving victims well.
"I have some evidence, some studies, some anecdotal evidence that young members of the military, mostly women, have lost faith and trust in our chain of command to resolve sexual assault through the chain of command," General Milley said Thursday.
But bringing in other crimes in a review of the military justice system, he said, "requires some detailed study," adding that he was "completely open to this."
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 the commando took action resulted in a conviction, the lowest percentage since the department began reporting cases of sexual assault in 2010.
Leaving the hearing, Ms Gillibrand seemed undaunted in her pursuit of her own legislation.
"This is something that the majority of the committee has already formed an opinion about," she told reporters. “There are so few laws in Congress today that support both Liz Warren and Ted Cruz, one that supports both Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell. This is widespread, has the majority of the committee, and this is not a new issue.”
Jonathan Weisman reporting contributed.