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Biden expresses support for changing how the military prosecutes sexual assault cases

President Biden answers a question from a reporter on Friday in Washington.
President Biden answers a question from a reporter on Friday in Washington. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

President Biden expressed support Friday for significant changes in the military justice system in which decisions on prosecuting sexual assault cases would be taken away from military commanders.

In a statement, Biden backed Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s decision to work with Congress on overhauling the system, calling for “concrete actions that fundamentally change the way we handle military sexual assault and that make it clear that these crimes will not be minimized or dismissed.”

Austin’s decision, announced last month, marks a dramatic about-face for the Pentagon, which for years has not meaningfully confronted an epidemic believed to affect thousands of personnel every year.

“Sexual assault is an abuse of power and an affront to our shared humanity,” Biden said. “And sexual assault in the military is doubly damaging because it also shreds the unity and cohesion that is essential to the functioning of the U.S. military and to our national defense. Yet for as long as we have abhorred this scourge, the statistics and the stories have grown worse.”

Officials said it might be until 2023 before changes to military law are implemented. An independent commission ordered by Austin recommended lawmakers include changes in the upcoming defense budget.

Biden’s announcement comes a day after officials offered a blistering assessment of sweeping failures by the military to address sex crimes in the ranks.

Commanders have been unable or unwilling to take on the problem despite years of rhetoric that it was a top priority, resources to address the problem are essentially nonexistent, and troops have lost faith in superiors to support and protect survivors, the commission found.

“For decades, service leaders have said there is no tolerance for sexual assault,” Lynn Rosenthal, a sex violence survivor advocate who led the commission, told reporters at the Pentagon on Friday. “But in practice, all too often, there is nothing but tolerance.”

There was a one percent rise in reported sexual assaults in the military in 2020, the Pentagon said in May, with 6,290 reports received from service members.

The Pentagon has said many sex crimes go unreported and estimate 6.2 percent of all women in the military, and 0.7 percent of men, experienced sexual assault in 2018, according to the most recent data analysis. That figure represents about 20,000 people.

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) argued the recommendations don’t go far enough. A bill she introduced would remove commander oversight of serious offenses prosecution beyond sex crimes, and she said in a statement that the Pentagon risks creating “a separate but unequal system of justice within the military” with its current plan.

Last month, Austin received recommendations and a comprehensive report from the independent commission that reviewed the issue. A number of senior military officials have been resistant to the idea because oversight of disciplinary matters within the ranks is a long-standing military tradition that few are willing to surrender.

Austin said Friday the Pentagon will move to implement changes long desired by survivor advocates, some of which will require working with Congress to implement new and modified laws.

Changes to military law will also remove the prosecution of domestic violence, child abuse and retaliation from the chain of command, Austin said. Sexual harassment will be added as an offense, he said.

Removal oversight from commanders may help repair trust, the commission said. Commanders holding the power to punish offenders may not seek justice if they have ties with the perpetrators, and survivors experience retaliation and are ostracized because people within a unit often pick sides, the commission said.

Austin said he embraced more than two dozen of the commission’s recommendations, which including adding Defense Department personnel to work specifically on sex crime prevention.

That task has largely fallen on mid-level military leaders as a collateral duty without resources or prioritization. When they do attempt to focus on prevention, they often conflate it with awareness, using well-meaning but trivializing events like “pancake breakfasts, dance contests, and golf tournaments,” the commission found.

While many of the recommendations focused on policy or process adjustments, creating a military culture that addresses sex crimes with a level of urgency comparable to other priorities will take some time, Rosenthal said.

“You have to pay as much attention to this as broken-down vehicles,” she said.

Dan Lamothe contributed to this report.

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