Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III on Wednesday formally endorsed changes to the way the military handles sexual assault cases, becoming the first secretary to do so, and told lawmakers he would recommend the revisions to President Biden.
The changes, which were recommended by a Pentagon commission that Mr. Austin convened, do not go as far as those sought by some lawmakers.
“As you know, my first directive as secretary of defense issued on my first full day in the office, was to service leadership about sexual assault,” Mr. Austin said in remarks before the House Armed Services Committee.
“In the coming days, I will present to President Biden my specific recommendations about the commission’s finding, but I know enough at this point to say that I fully support removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command,” he said. Saying he would work with Congress to make the changes, as required by law, Mr. Austin added, “We must treat this as the leadership issue it is.”
Right before Mr. Austin spoke, Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California said in a news conference that she would put a bill on the floor that would go further than what Mr. Austin was endorsing. That bill, sponsored by Representative Jackie Speier, Democrat of California, would remove all serious crimes from commanders’ hands. A similar bill has been pushed for nearly a decade by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, but she has faced pushback from the chairman and highest ranking members of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
“We will bring this bill to the floor, it will pass in the House. I hope that it will succeed in the Senate as, as well,” said Ms. Pelosi, who was flanked by Ms. Speier, Ms. Gillibrand and members from both parties who support the measure.
Mr. Austin’s appointed commission recommended the inclusion of a special victims crimes unit inside an independent prosecution system, which would also cover domestic violence, but not other serious crimes as Ms. Gillibrand and Ms. Speier’s measures would.
This week, several military service chiefs expressed resistance to the legislation, teeing up a potential legislative battle that Mr. Biden will likely end up having to weigh in on.
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