Amid Pushback from Joint Chiefs, SecDef Backs Changes to Military Sexual Prosecutions

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies.
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin testifies before a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing, Thursday, June 17, 2021, on Capitol Hill in Washington. (Caroline Brehman/Pool via AP)

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is backing a review commission's call to remove decisions on prosecuting sexual assaults and related crimes, as well as other crimes including domestic violence, from the military's chain of command.

In a release Tuesday evening, Austin praised the work done by the Independent Review Commission, which was formed in February, to find ways to stop sexual assault in the military and better support victims of sexual assault. The commission presented its findings and recommendations to Austin on Monday.

But Austin's backing of changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice for sexual assault and other special victims' crimes could prove controversial in the military. Earlier on Tuesday, Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., released letters from seven top generals, including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley, opposing a bill that would take decisions on prosecuting major crimes out of commanders' hands.

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However, some generals, including Milley, expressed an openness to a limited revamp of the military justice process that only removed decisions on prosecuting sexual assault crimes from commanders.

Austin said that he supports the commission's call to include domestic violence and other special victims crimes in the proposed independent prosecution system, because there is a strong correlation between those crimes and the prevalence of sexual assault.

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Austin said he will soon present specific recommendations to President Biden, but outlined broader points for reform he is backing.

In addition to removing sexual assaults and related crimes from the chain of command, Austin said the military needs to change its approach for preventing sexual assault, command climate, and how victims are supported. He did not detail those changes, but said the commission's recommendations "appear strong and well-grounded."

Austin also said the Pentagon will need new resources, and authorities to enact the commission's recommendations, and that the military's leadership will work with Congress on this.

Recommendations that can already be done with the Pentagon's existing authorities will be given the top priority, he said.

And he praised Defense's civilian and military leadership for supporting the commission, and "the thoughtfulness with which they have advised me" as the department tries to find ways to eliminate sexual assault and harassment.

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

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

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