During a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Thursday, Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin voiced his support for making changes to the laws governing the military’s handling of sexual assault cases but chose not to endorse a bill by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand that would remove the military chain of command from serious felonies. Although Sec. Austin chose not to offer his support to Gillibrand’s bill, his willingness to support any changes at all in how the military handles sexual assault cases is actually a significant shift from past military leadership. Yes, the bar is truly below ground.
In February, Sec. Austin appointed an independent commission to examine the issue of sexual assault in the military and provide recommendations, and although the recommendations are still awaiting the review of the service chiefs, Austin’s Thursday comments indicated that he preferred the suggestions of his commission over the broader reform proposed in Gillibrand’s legislation. The commission panel recommended that independent military lawyers take over the role that commanders currently play in deciding whether or not to court-martial people accused of sexual assault, sexual harassment, or domestic violence. They also suggested creating a new career track in the Defense Department where military lawyers would be specially trained in handling cases of sexual violence—a pronounced change from current military procedure.
Gillibrand’s bill has the support of at least 70 members of the Senate (including a number who voted against this same legislation in 2014), and the endorsement of President Biden. However, it’s reportedly likely that Austin’s opposition to the changes proposed in Gillibrand’s bill will lead to confrontation between the Senate and the Pentagon, where the position of the White House could be a deciding factor.
Regardless of the fate of Gillibrand’s bill, it seems likely that commanders will soon be losing the full control they currently have over sexual assault prosecutions. In 2019, the Department of Defense found that there were 7,825 reports of sexual assault where service members were victims, but the conviction rate in the cases where the command took action was only 7%—the lowest rate since the department began reporting less than a decade earlier.
“Clearly, what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working,” said Sec. Austin during Thursday’s hearing. “One assault is too many. The numbers of sexual assaults are still too high, and the confidence in our system is still too low.”