WASHINGTON — Protection Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III instructed to lawmakers on Thursday that he supported adjustments to the way in which the army handles sexual assault circumstances, however he declined to endorse a measure lengthy pushed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, that might lower the army chain of command out of the prosecution of many different critical crimes as effectively.
Mr. Austin’s help for adjustments round sexual assault circumstances represents a serious shift for army management, which has lengthy resisted calls to finish the apply of dealing with such circumstances by the chain of command. However his opposition to broader adjustments to the army justice system proposed by Ms. Gillibrand may arrange a showdown between a bipartisan group of senators and the Pentagon.
“Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” Mr. Austin mentioned in remarks earlier than the Senate Armed Companies Committee. “One assault is just too many. The numbers of sexual assaults are nonetheless too excessive, and the arrogance in our system remains to be too low.”
Reasonably than embrace Ms. Gillibrand’s invoice, Mr. Austin appeared to endorse the suggestions of a panel he appointed to review the difficulty earlier this 12 months. That panel advisable that unbiased army legal professionals take over the position that commanders presently play in deciding whether or not to court-martial these accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment or home violence.
“The problems of sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Mr. Austin mentioned, “are the issues we try to resolve and enhance.”
President Biden has signaled his help for Ms. Gillibrand’s broader strategy, at the least for now. Her invoice has gained help from at the least 70 members of the Senate — together with many who voted in opposition to the identical invoice in 2014, arguing it could undermine commanders — and key members within the Home.
Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island and chairman of the Armed Companies Committee, believes Ms. Gillibrand’s invoice goes too far, and he has been working behind the scenes with Pentagon officers to rein it in.
“I need to ensure that no matter adjustments to the U.C.M.J. that I like to recommend to the president and finally to this committee, that they’re scoped to the issue we try to resolve, have a transparent manner ahead on implementation, and finally restore the arrogance of the pressure within the system,” Mr. Austin mentioned, referring to the Uniform Code of Army Justice, which is the muse of the American army authorized system. “You have got my dedication to that, and likewise my dedication to working expeditiously as you take into account legislative proposals.”
Mr. Austin’s remarks may set off an intense political battle about which strategy Congress will take. It’s going to check the facility of Ms. Gillibrand amongst her bipartisan Senate allies, together with Senator Chuck Schumer, Democrat of New York and the bulk chief, who may very well be compelled to choose sides in figuring out the measure’s destiny.
In both occasion, it appears clear that commanders are all however sure to lose full management over sexual assault prosecutions. “Change is coming to the division,” Mr. Reed mentioned.
Ms. Gillibrand and one in all her Republican colleagues on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, additional pressed Mr. Austin on his views of the difficulty in the course of the listening to. Ms. Gillibrand instructed that failure to incorporate different critical crimes within the laws would contribute to racial disparities in court-martial circumstances, which appeared to be a part of a method to attraction to the remaining skeptical members of Congress and Mr. Austin.
However whereas Mr. Austin took pains to reward Ms. Gillibrand’s work on the matter over the past decade, he additionally signaled that he didn’t help the broad nature of her laws.
“No matter adjustments happen going ahead can be largely as a result of your unimaginable dedication to this difficulty,” he advised Ms. Gillibrand. “As you realize, Senator, I at all times have an open thoughts to fixing any powerful downside,” he mentioned, including that his fee had been centered on sexual assault and harassment.
When he was confirmed by the Senate, Mr. Austin mentioned that dealing extra forcefully with sexual assault can be a high precedence. In February, he appointed the unbiased fee to look at the difficulty and provides suggestions that he and the service chiefs may take into account.
The members of the panel are in search of to create a brand new profession monitor within the Protection Division through which decide advocates common — army legal professionals — can be specifically educated to cope with such circumstances. This alone can be a serious shift in how the army does issues. Mr. Austin has mentioned he needs the service chiefs to evaluation the suggestions.
Kathleen Hicks, the deputy protection secretary and the primary girl to serve within the No. 2 position on the Pentagon, and Normal Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Employees, have each mentioned they’ve change into satisfied that the present system doesn’t serve victims effectively.
“I’ve some proof, some research, some anecdotal proof that junior members of the army, primarily ladies, have misplaced religion and confidence in our chain of command to resolve sexual assault by the chain of command,” Normal Milley mentioned Thursday.
However bringing in different felonies to any overhaul of the army justice system, he mentioned, “requires some detailed examine,” including that he had “an entire open thoughts on this.”
In 2019, the Protection Division discovered that there have been 7,825 stories of sexual assault involving service members as victims, a three p.c improve from 2018. The conviction charge for circumstances was unchanged from 2018 to 2019; 7 p.c of circumstances that the command took motion on resulted in conviction, the bottom charge because the division started reporting sexual assault circumstances in 2010.
Leaving the listening to, Ms. Gillibrand appeared undeterred in her push for her personal laws.
“That is one thing that almost all of the committee has already fashioned a view on,” she advised reporters. “There are so few items of laws in Congress at this time that each Liz Warren and Ted Cruz help, one which each Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell help. That is broadly bipartisan, has nearly all of the committee, and this isn’t a brand new difficulty.”
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.