Austin backs removing sex assault cases from military chain of command

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Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin officially supports taking sexual assault cases out of the military chain of command, he announced this week for the first time.

Austin revealed his new position in a statement Tuesday, one day after receiving recommendations from an independent board he commissioned to review the issue of disciplinary oversight within the armed forces.

In addition to that group, a supermajority of 66 US senators — led by Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) — have backed a bill that would have independent prosecutors handle military felonies that call for more than a year in prison.

Commanders’ ability to decide whether to turn cases over to authorities is a longstanding military tradition.

Gillibrand’s bill goes further than where Austin stands on the issue, however, taking the military chain of command out of the equation by transferring all major crimes to independent military lawyers.

In his Tuesday statement, the defense secretary said he was still reviewing the full scope of the recommended changes from the commission.

“We will work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command,” he said, adding that he supported the commission and Gillibrand’s push to also include domestic violence-related crimes.

Prior to Tuesday, Austin had only said he was open to such changes, but declined to offer his full backing.

The defense secretary now shares the opinion of Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who came out in support of removing sexual assault cases from the military chain of command last month.

Still, Milley has expressed his wariness that going beyond that, as Gillibrand’s bill would do, would “have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, justice, unit cohesion, trust, and loyalty between commanders and those they lead.”

“However, in the specific and limited circumstance of sexual assault, I remain open-minded to all solutions.”

Milley made those comments in a letter last month to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who also opposes the scope of Gillibrand’s bill.

“I urge caution to ensure any changes to commander authority to enforce discipline be rigorously analyzed, evidence-based, and narrow in scope, limited only to sexual assault and related offenses,” he wrote to the Oklahoma senator.

With Post wires

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