WASHINGTON — Protection Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III instructed to lawmakers on Thursday that he supported modifications to the way in which the navy handles sexual assault instances, however he declined to endorse a measure lengthy pushed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, that will minimize the navy chain of command out of the prosecution of many different critical crimes as effectively.
Mr. Austin’s help for modifications round sexual assault instances represents a significant shift for navy management, which has lengthy resisted calls to finish the follow of dealing with such instances by way of the chain of command. However his opposition to broader modifications to the navy 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 simply too many. The numbers of sexual assaults are nonetheless too excessive, and the arrogance in our system remains to be too low.”
Relatively than embrace Ms. Gillibrand’s invoice, Mr. Austin appeared to endorse the suggestions of a panel he appointed to check the problem earlier this yr. That panel beneficial that impartial navy legal professionals take over the function that commanders at present 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 are attempting to resolve and enhance.”
President Biden has signaled his help for Ms. Gillibrand’s broader strategy, not less than for now. Her invoice has gained help from not less than 70 members of the Senate — together with many who voted towards the identical invoice in 2014, arguing it will 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 make sure that no matter modifications 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 are attempting to resolve, have a transparent means ahead on implementation, and finally restore the arrogance of the pressure within the system,” Mr. Austin mentioned, referring to the Uniform Code of Navy Justice, which is the inspiration of the American navy authorized system. “You might have my dedication to that, and in addition my dedication to working expeditiously as you think about legislative proposals.”
Mr. Austin’s remarks may set off an intense political battle about which strategy Congress will take. It should 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 could possibly 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 every of her Republican colleagues on the committee, Senator Joni Ernst of Iowa, additional pressed Mr. Austin on his views of the problem 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 instances, which gave the impression to be a part of a technique 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 modifications happen going ahead will likely be largely as a result of your unbelievable dedication to this concern,” he advised Ms. Gillibrand. “As you understand, Senator, I all the time 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 could be a high precedence. In February, he appointed the impartial fee to look at the problem and provides suggestions that he and the service chiefs may think about.
The members of the panel are in search of to create a brand new profession observe within the Protection Division during which decide advocates common — navy legal professionals — could be specifically skilled to take care of such instances. This alone could be a significant shift in how the navy does issues. Mr. Austin has mentioned he desires the service chiefs to evaluate the suggestions.
Kathleen Hicks, the deputy protection secretary and the primary girl to serve within the No. 2 function on the Pentagon, and Common Mark A. Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Workers, have each mentioned they’ve turn 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 navy, primarily ladies, have misplaced religion and confidence in our chain of command to resolve sexual assault by way of the chain of command,” Common Milley mentioned Thursday.
However bringing in different felonies to any overhaul of the navy 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 studies of sexual assault involving service members as victims, a 3 % improve from 2018. The conviction charge for instances was unchanged from 2018 to 2019; 7 % of instances that the command took motion on resulted in conviction, the bottom charge because the division started reporting sexual assault instances 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 shaped a view on,” she advised reporters. “There are so few items of laws in Congress at the moment that each Liz Warren and Ted Cruz help, one which each Chuck Schumer and Mitch McConnell help. That is extensively bipartisan, has nearly all of the committee, and this isn’t a brand new concern.”
Jonathan Weisman contributed reporting.