Defense Secretary Backs Changes to Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

Defense Secretary Backs Changes to Handling of Sexual Assault Cases

2021-06-10 22:02:15

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.

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.


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