Defense Secretary Supports Sweeping Changes to Chain of Command on Sexual Assault Cases

Secretary Of Defense Lloyd Austin will recommend that President Biden support amending the Uniform Code of Military Justice - something no one else in Austin's position has ever been willing to do.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin testifies on the Defense Department's budget request during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill on June 17, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Evelyn Hockstein/via Getty Images)

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin has formally announced that he will support the conclusions of a commission’s independent review on military sexual assault and recommend to the president that sexual assault cases should be handled entirely by independent military prosecutors.

A seismic shift in military legal practices would run counter to years of established military practice. The Pentagon resisted the idea of taking sexual assault cases outside of the typical chain of command for years. If approved, the new reforms would effectively alter a long-standing military tradition of sexual assault incidents being reported pursuant to the chain of command, a process that has recently been intensely scrutinized.

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Secretary Austin set up an Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military on his second day in his new role leading the Pentagon. Austin instructed the panel to deliver all recommendations for fixing the ongoing sexual assault and harassment issue in the military.

The Pentagon's independent commission was led by Lynn Rosenthal, the Obama administration’s advisor on violence against women, who was asked by the Defense Department to develop "bold action” on this issue. The goal was to improve the approach to sexual assault and harassment cases in the military to prevent abuse and enforce accountability.

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee for its hearing on "A Review of the FY2022 Department of Defense Budget Request' on June 17, 2021, in Washington, DC. (Photo by Caroline Brehman/via Getty Images)

Austin is now prepared to show further unwavering support on this issue and will present the conclusions of his commission and their suggestions for reform to President Biden for approval. Given that Biden ordered that the commission provide solutions to improve accountability, prevention, climate and culture, victim care, and support for sexual assault cases, it is highly likely that the president will accept and formalize this new plan.

Advocacy groups and Democratic politicians have been seeking reform in this arena for years, arguing that military commanders are inclined to overlook accusations of sexual misconduct in favor of keeping established personnel and customs in place. Those in favor of reform say that independent prosecutors experienced in charging and litigating these issues would be more appropriate and much more likely to pursue repeat offenders.

The number of sexual assaults reported in the military has continued to rise. The epidemic reached crisis proportions in 2019 when the Pentagon confirmed that approximately 20,500 soldiers — 13,000 women and 7,500 men — had experienced some form of sexual assault while serving in the military. That astounding number of reported assaults in 2019 was 37% higher than the previous report conducted only two years earlier in 2017.

An intentionally out-of-focus image of a female soldier in the US military in front of an American flag. (Photo by Marco Longari/ via Getty Images) 

After newly elected President Biden ordered a review of the problem in February of this year, Sen. Gillibrand and Rep. Jackie Speier (D-CA) urged the president to assume control of the Pentagon panel to combat "routinely stacked similar panels with members who will toe the Department's line."

According to two senior defense officials, the new system would affect only a small fraction of the wide range of military discipline cases that commanders regularly handle. The Pentagon panel also recommends that if a sexual harassment charge is substantiated, the military should immediately begin discharging that person from the force while other investigations and legal proceedings continue.

President Joe Biden (L) salutes along with Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin (R) before delivering an address at the 153rd National Memorial Day Observance at Arlington National Cemetery on Memorial Day in Arlington, Virginia on May 31, 2021. (Photo by Mandel Ngan/via Getty Images)

Below is the complete statement of Defense Secretary Austin:

“Yesterday, I received the final recommendations and complete report of the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment.

I want to thank Lynn Rosenthal for her exceptional leadership of this commission, as well as the talented experts who worked so diligently to support her.  The work they produced was informed not only by their own significant experience, but by that of so many members of our military, including sexual assault survivors.  

The result is a comprehensive assessment across four lines of effort -- accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support -- that recommends creative and evidence-based options.  It provides us real opportunities to finally end the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military.  

In coming days, I will present to President Biden my specific recommendations about the commission’s findings, but I know enough at this point to state the following:

First, we will work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command.  

The IRC recommended the inclusion of other special victims’ crimes inside this independent prosecution system, to include domestic violence.  I support this as well, given the strong correlation between these sorts of crimes and the prevalence of sexual assault.

Second, solving this problem requires not just greater accountability, which we need, but also changes to our approach on prevention, command climate, and victim services.  I am reviewing the full scope of the commission’s recommendations in these areas, but generally they appear strong and well-grounded. I have directed my staff to do a detailed assessment and implementation plan for my review and approval.

Third, the Department will need new resources and authorities necessary to implement the IRC’s recommendations. Those we believe we can implement under existing authorities will be given priority.  We will need to work closely with Congress to secure additional authorities and relief where needed.  We will most assuredly require additional resources, both in personnel and in funding. But it may take us some time to determine how much and where they are most wisely applied.

Finally, as in all other things, these changes demand leadership.  I appreciate the support that the Department’s civilian and military leaders have provided to the commission, and the thoughtfulness with which they have advised me as we develop effective ways to implement the changes we need to eliminate sexual assault and sexual harassment from our ranks.

As I made clear on my first full day in office, this is a leadership issue.  And we will lead.  Our people depend upon it.  They deserve nothing less.”


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Amee Vanderpool writes the SHERO Newsletter and is an attorney, published author, contributor to newspapers and magazines, and analyst for BBC Radio. She can be reached at avanderpool@gmail.com or follow her on Twitter at @girlsreallyrule. 

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