The White House released the results of an independent review commission on sexual assault in the military Friday, announcing a series of recommendations aimed at combating military sexual assault and moving prosecution of assaults outside the chain of command, in what one senior administration official called “a monumental pivot in how the Department does business.”
The 300-page report, titled, “Hard Truths and the Duty to Change: Recommendations from the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military,” makes more than 80 recommendations, warning of “a wide chasm between what senior leaders believe is happening under their commands, and what junior enlisted Service members actually experience.” The commission met with more than 600 individuals over the course of 90 days, including military and veteran service organizations, victim advocacy groups, and veteran and active duty sexual assault survivors.
The report’s findings focus on four areas related to accountability, prevention, climate and culture and survivor care and support — the official tells CNN the recommendations, including the decision to move prosecution of sexual assault outside the chain of command, was backed by Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.
In a statement Friday, President Joe Biden applauded the commission’s findings, writing he “strongly support[ed] Secretary Austin’s” decision to accept the report’s recommendations.
“Today’s announcement is the beginning, not the end of our work,” Biden wrote, adding, “This will be among the most significant reforms to our military undertaken in recent history, and I’m committed to delivering results.”
Last week, Austin announced he planned to recommend prosecution of sexual assaults in the military be taken out of commanders’ hands. “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,” Austin said in a statement.
“The President spoke with Secretary Austin about these issues and fully supports his approach,” a senior administration official said Thursday. “President Biden appreciates the leadership Secretary Austin has shown in taking these bold steps necessary to remedy this persistent problem — the President has sought to stamp out the scourge of sexual assault in the military and believes that in advancing the IRC’s recommendations, the Department of Defense will be introducing comprehensive changes to implement his administration’s unwavering commitment to improving both the response to and prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military.”
“Over the next few months, the White House and The Pentagon will be in consultation to best understand how to make these recommendations reality and work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as is required to make whatever legislative changes are part of these recommendations,” another senior administration official told CNN Thursday, adding that, in the meantime, the commission “recommended some key priorities for immediate action,” including a study on resources relating to victim advocacy within the next three months.
The commission also recommended changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) be enacted by 2023 to ensure “that kind of time is taken to appropriately build a structure which involves Special Victims prosecutors reporting outside of the chain of command of the military chain of command.”
But the proposed reforms backed by the White House are at odds with the legislation authored by New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand and Iowa GOP Sen. Joni Ernst, which would move most felony prosecutions into the hands of independent prosecutors, and not just sexual assault and related crimes. The White House position aligns more closely with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, who has said he’s open to moving sexual assault cases outside the chain of command but warned against changing the way other crimes are prosecuted in the military.
“I am disappointed in our military leadership. What they are trying to do is create what we see or what we call a ‘pink court,'” Ernst told CNN last month. “By separating certain crimes out, rather than all serious crimes, I think they have made a huge mistake.”
Still, the White House’s endorsement to move sexual assault cases outside the chain of command is a significant victory for Gillibrand, who has pushed for changes in the military for years.
“The President wants to acknowledge and thank Senator Gillibrand for years of tireless efforts to shine a light on these deep-seated problems and for her efforts to build a bipartisan consensus to work for change,” the official told reporters Thursday, “and is also grateful for the leadership of Senator Joni Ernst, and others who have amplified the voices of survivors to advocate for necessary reforms to address assault and harassment in the military.”