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Pentagon chief calls for removing prosecution of sexual assault from chain of command

Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Tuesday he will recommend that President Joe Biden removes prosecutorial powers over sexual assault cases from the chain of command. Pool photo by Evelyn Hockstein/UPI
Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin said Tuesday he will recommend that President Joe Biden removes prosecutorial powers over sexual assault cases from the chain of command. Pool photo by Evelyn Hockstein/UPI | License Photo

June 22 (UPI) -- Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced Tuesday that he will recommend to President Joe Biden to remove prosecutorial powers over sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command.

Austin announced he had decided to make the recommendation in a statement a day after receiving a report from the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault and Sexual Harassment that had made the suggestion.

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In order to remove the prosecution of such cases from the chain of command, Austin said military leaders will work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice.

"The IRC recommended the inclusion of other special victims' crimes inside this independent prosecution system, to include domestic violence," he said. "I support this as well, given the strong correlation between these sorts of crimes and the prevalence of sexual assault."

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The report, he said, was the product of not only the commission's experience but of members of the military, including sexual assault survivors.

Greater accountability is needed to address the problem of sexual assault and the military itself needs to change its approach to prevention and victim services, Austin said, adding that to implement the commission's recommendations, more resources and authorities from Congress will be needed.

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"Those [recommendations] we believe we can implement under existing authorities will be given priority," he said, adding that additional personnel and funding will be required. "But it may take us some time to determine how much and where they are most wisely applied."

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The report delivered to Austin on Monday was produced by the IRC, which was led by Lynn Rosenthal and created by the secretary with a Feb. 26 memorandum to conduct a 90-day investigation into sexual assault in the military.

"The work they produced was informed not only by their own significant experience, but by that of so many members of our military, including sexual assault survivors," he said. "It provides us real opportunities to finally end the scourge of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military."

The announcement was made amid a push by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to pass a sweeping military justice reform bill that would, among other changes, also remove prosecutorial powers over serious crimes, including sexual assault, from the chain of command to independent prosecutors.

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The Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act, which Gillibrand first introduced in 2013, has yet to be placed to a vote. On Monday, she urged her colleagues in Congress for a vote, stating since May 23 when she first called for them to so some 1,624 service members would have been raped or sexually assaulted.

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"Every minute we delay we are not standing by our service members," she said, adding that 66 senators support it. "It's time to do the reform that survivors have asked for and that veteran organizations support."

Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., who is a ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, released letters on Tuesday sent to him from seven senior military officials raising concerns against the act, with Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Mark Milley among them.

"It is my professional opinion that removing commanders from prosecution decision process and accountability 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," he wrote in the May 19 letter.

However, he said he remains "open-minded" about doing so for the specific and limited circumstance of sexual assault.

"I urge caution to ensure any changes to commander authority to enforce discipline by rigorously analyzed, evidence-based and narrow in scope, limited only to sexual assault and related offenses," he said.

In response, Gillibrand said the content of the letters was disappointing but not surprising as the chain of command has fought against progress to maintain the status quo, calling their arguments "recycled talking points."

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"It is time for Congress and the administration to exercise their constitutional oversight duties and professionalize and reform the military justice system to reduce bias, increase efficiency and restore the confidence of our service members," she said in a statement.

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