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Defense Secretary Says He Supports Reform To Military Justice System

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin told lawmakers today that he supports a major change to the military justice system. For the first time, a defense secretary is supporting a plan to let independent military lawyers handle cases involving sexual assault and domestic violence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

LLOYD AUSTIN: I fully support removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command.

CHANG: Under the current system, military commanders get to make the decisions about whether to take those cases to trial. NPR Pentagon correspondent Tom Bowman is with us now.

Hey, Tom.

TOM BOWMAN, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: So how significant would you say is this announcement from Secretary Austin?

BOWMAN: You know, I would say it's pretty significant. The Pentagon has long resisted such a move because they consider their chain of command pretty sacred as far as a commander being in charge of the troops, including disciplinary matters. But an independent commission just made the recommendation. Now, the incidence of sexual assault continue to rise, and prosecutions keep dropping. And Secretary Austin has said that ending sexual assault is a priority. Now, it's important to note, Ailsa, that the secretary only wants to let independent military lawyers handle sexual assault and domestic violence cases, not all felonies.

CHANG: Right. That is important to note, because there is legislation being proposed by Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York that would remove from the chain of command the prosecution of all felonies. Am I correct, all felonies?

BOWMAN: That's right. And she has growing bipartisan support. And there's now a companion bill in the House. So we'll see how Secretary Austin's more narrow view will play on Capitol Hill. Now, he's also sending his recommendation to President Biden. So does Biden side with Austin or Gillibrand? We'll just have to see what happens. And Ailsa, complicating matters further, the Joint Chiefs really aren't fully on board with Secretary Austin's position about removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command. Joint Chiefs Chairman General Mark Milley has said he is urging caution to any changes in command authority. But he says he's open-minded to all solutions as long as it's limited to sexual assault and related offenses.

CHANG: Let's talk about that, segregating sexual assault and domestic violence cases from other cases. What is the reasoning behind removing only those cases involving sexual assault from the chain of command?

BOWMAN: Well, again, the cases of sexual assault are increasing, and too few are being prosecuted. And the sense is that commanders might be reluctant to move forward, maybe because they know the alleged assailant and might give that person, let's say, a pass. If you have an independent investigator, you would, of course, avoid all that. Now, over the years, there have been story after story of women's complaints being brushed aside, not taken seriously by her command and women eventually just leaving the military as a result. I've been hearing those stories now, really, for many, many years.

CHANG: Yeah. Well, beyond this current news, I understand that we are still waiting on some other recommendations from this Pentagon commission. Is that correct?

BOWMAN: You know, that is correct. Secretary Austin said he's still reviewing the recommendations involving prevention of sexual assault, victim services, how to improve command climate - no details yet on what that will look like. And he said he'll need more personnel and money - he's telling Congress that - to put all this into effect. And in the end, he said, listen; all these changes require leadership, meaning commanders at all levels have to take the issue seriously. So look, again, for more victims advocates, for example, likely more training for service members. But clearly, Secretary Austin is taking this very, very seriously and is very, very focused on this.

CHANG: That is NPR's Tom Bowman.

Thank you, Tom.

BOWMAN: You're welcome, Ailsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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