Biden backs major reform to military’s handling of sexual assault

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President Joe Biden is backing a major effort to reform the military’s handling of sexual assault after consulting with Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin about an unprecedented plan to remove decisions on prosecuting cases from unit commanders.

Biden made the announcement after Austin accepted the recommendation of an independent review panel that the Pentagon take sexual assault and related crimes out of the chain of command, and instead let independent military lawyers handle them.

Austin's recommendation does not, however, go as far as legislation gaining support in Congress that would make that change for all major crimes, not just sexual assault.

In a statement, Biden says he "strongly" supports the change. "Sexual assault is an abuse of power and an affront to our shared humanity," he said. "And sexual assault in the military is doubly damaging because it also shreds the unity and cohesion that is essential to the functioning of the U.S. military and to our national defense."

The top military brass has long resisted the change, but leaders have recently acknowledged that the Pentagon has not made sufficient progress in combating sexual assault in the ranks and that more needs to be done.

In a Friday memo, Austin directed senior Pentagon leaders to begin carrying out the panel’s recommendations. This includes working with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice to remove commanders from decisions to prosecute sexual assaults and related crimes — domestic violence, child abuse and retaliation — and adding sexual harassment as an offense under the UCMJ.

Austin also directed the department to create dedicated offices within the services to handle the prosecution of these special crimes “with appropriate legal oversight and guidance from the Office of the Secretary of Defense,” according to the memo.

In the memo, Austin directed the services and department leadership to standardize non-judicial punishment across the services, to establish a separate process for service members with substantiated sexual harassment claims and to professionalize the military’s sexual assault and harassment response force.

Austin will continue to review the “full scope” of the panel’s recommendations in the area of prevention, unit climate and victim services, he wrote in the memo, but “generally they appear strong and well-grounded.”

The secretary has directed Deputy Defense Secretary Kathleen Hicks to develop an “implementation roadmap” for his review within 60 days, which will also identify the resources and authorities necessary to make the changes, according to the memo. Following his approval of Hicks’ proposed roadmap, he directed the undersecretary of defense for personnel and readiness to work closely with the general counsel, military department and other components to oversee the implementation of his recommendations.

“Our most critical asset as a Department is our people, and our people and readiness are inextricably linked,” Austin wrote. “We will remain the preeminent fighting force in the world because we strive to better take care of our people. Our values and expectations remain at the core of addressing this problem and I have every confidence that our Force will get this right.”

Austin previewed the announcement last week, when he said in a statement that he was backing the changes. Austin pledged to work with Congress to implement the reforms but did not take a position on legislation that would go further than the panel’s recommendation and require that independent lawyers handle not just sexual assault, but all major crimes.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) has sufficient support in the Senate to pass a bill mandating that independent prosecutors handle felonies calling for more than a year in prison. But some lawmakers and top military leaders have balked at this broader approach, arguing that it would erode the commanders’ authority and discipline in the ranks.

Austin spoke with Biden recently about the issues, and the president “fully supports his approach,” a senior administration official told reporters on Thursday ahead of the announcement.

The changes to the UCMJ, which require congressional action, likely won’t be enacted until 2023, a second senior administration official said. In the meantime, the Pentagon will move forward with the panel’s other recommendations, including enhancing the prevention and handling of sexual harassment cases, improving unit climate and the military’s response to domestic violence.

Rather than diminishing commanders’ roles, officials argued that shifting legal decisions about prosecutions to independent prosecutors actually “enhances their role.”

The change “places them in the lead of taking care of their people, the number one job of commanders, and creating climates of no tolerance for sexual assault, sexual harassment and related crimes,” the second official said. “Commanders are the key to improving unit climate to changing the culture and to protecting victims from negative consequences related to reporting sexual assault—indeed, commanders are the key to making it safe for victims to come forward at all.”

Biden, in his statement, said there's more to be done on the issue.

"Today’s announcement is the beginning, not the end of our work. This will be among the most significant reforms to our military undertaken in recent history, and I’m committed to delivering results," he said. "Keeping our country safe has to start with prioritizing the safety of those who proudly sign up to serve our country. And today’s announcement represents an important and overdue step in the right direction."

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