Seven Top Generals Object to Taking Military Prosecutions Out of Commanders' Hands

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Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
Members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are photographed in the Joint Chiefs of Staff conference room, more commonly referred to as “The Tank”, in the Pentagon, Dec. 11, 2020. (DoD/Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Carlos M. Vazquez II)

The Joint Chiefs of Staff on Tuesday came out against Sen. Kristen Gillibrand's proposal to take the decision to prosecute major crimes out of the hands of commanders, jeopardizing the chance of passing major changes to the military criminal justice system.

In letters released by Sen. Jim Inhofe, R-Okla., seven top generals outlined their concerns with the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, and said it could hurt the military's ability to maintain order and discipline in the ranks without improving how the services prosecute serious crimes.

The generals who submitted letters included Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Mark Milley; Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville; Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Q. Brown; Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Mike Gilday; Marine Corps Commandant Gen. David Berger; Chief of Space Operations Gen. John "Jay" Raymond; and Chief of the National Guard Bureau Gen. Daniel Hokanson.

However, some of the joint chiefs, Milley said, indicated they were open to removing the decision to prosecute sexual assault crimes from commanders.

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In a release, Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said that the letters were "disappointing, but not surprising," and urged Congress and the administration to act to reform the military justice system.

"From racially integrating the armed forces to enabling women to serve in combat to allowing LGBTQ service members to serve openly, the chain of command has always fought to protect the status quo, just as they are doing here," Gillibrand said. "Their arguments are recycled talking points from the battles for progress in the past and are void of any coherent argument beyond the disingenuous 'good order and discipline.'"

But while Gillibrand touted the bill's broad range of bipartisan support -- she said it is backed by 66 senators, including 21 Republicans and two independents -- she said it is being blocked by Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Inhofe.

Inhofe said in his release that the Joint Chiefs' views on the bill, and whether it would truly reduce sexual assaults or other crimes in the military or have unintended consequences, "were, across the board, not reassuring."

Inhofe said the bill would not provide enough time or money to enact these proposed changes, leaving just six months to overhaul the military justice system and not providing any resources or additional personnel to get it done.

In his letter, Milley said that removing commanders from prosecution decisions "may have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, justice, unit cohesion, trust and loyalty between commanders and those they lead."

Milley said that any changes to commander authority should be narrowly drawn and "limited only to sexual assault and related offenses."

"It is my belief we have not made sufficient progress in recent years to eliminate sexual assault, and we have consequently lost the trust and confidence of many soldiers, sailors, airmen, Marines and Guardians in the chain of command's ability to adjudicate these serious crimes," Milley said.

McConville also recommended that removing commanders' prosecution authorities should only apply to rape and sexual assault offenses under Article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice. And he advised these changes be tested on a trial basis over a three-year period.

Brown also said in his letter that, if commanders' prosecution authority is removed, it should be limited to just sexual assault and harassment.

-- Stephen Losey can be reached at stephen.losey@military.com. Follow him on Twitter @StephenLosey.

Related: Military Leaders Wary of Changes in Sexual Assault Policy

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