WASHINGTON — The U.S. military moved a step closer to taking the prosecution of sex crimes out of the chain of command Friday, as Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin endorsed the findings of a commission formed to review the Pentagon's ability to combat sexual assault and harassment.
Austin's embrace of the commission's main conclusions — along with President Joe Biden's support for his decision to do so — represents a paradigm shift for a Defense Department that has long resisted efforts to alter its justice system. He had previewed his thinking in testimony before the Senate earlier this month, saying, "clearly, what we've been doing hasn't been working."
In a statement Friday, Biden called sexual assault "an abuse of power and an affront to our shared humanity" that is "doubly damaging" when it involves servicemembers "because it also shreds the unity and cohesion that is essential to the functioning of the U.S. military and to our national defense."
For more than half a dozen years, a network of lawmakers, victims and advocates have been pushing for a military justice system that doesn't rely on the judgment of commanders in sexual assault cases involving their subordinates.
"About bleeping time," said Denise Rucker Krepp, a former Coast Guard officer who testified before a previous Pentagon panel on sexual assault trauma. "This is a huge change in thought processes."
While military sexual assault survivors and their advocates are encouraged by the shift in the Pentagon's stance, the commission's recommendations fall far short of the sweeping policy changes envisioned by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y. Along with 65 co-sponsors, she has introduced legislation that would remove all "serious" crimes — sexual and non-sexual — from the chain of command, leaving the existing justice system in place only for misdemeanors and military-specific charges.
And even with Austin's backing, many of the recommendations in the 299-page report — including the chain-of-command change and funding for prevention programs — would require Congress to act. The commission envisions such legislative changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice being implemented no earlier than the fall of 2023.
A person involved in the debate in Congress noted that Austin did not endorse all of the reforms recommended by the commission, including one that would have addressed cases like that of Vanessa Guillen, a soldier who was killed shortly after lodging a sexual assault complaint.
The Defense Department's newfound openness to partial reform — and the reversal of its rhetoric on sexual assault — could result in lawmakers accepting the Pentagon's position.
Gillibrand and Sen. Joni Ernst, R-Iowa, a military veteran and sexual assault survivor who has also been at the forefront of the push to reform the Pentagon's justice system, were noticeably silent in the first hours after the report was released.
Biden praised the two senators, along with Reps. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., and Jackie Speier, D-Calif., for pressing the issue on Capitol Hill.
"I look forward to working with Congress to implement these necessary reforms and promote a work environment that is free from sexual assault and harassment for every one of our brave service members," Biden said.