U.S. military leaders say there is no tolerance for sexual assault in the force — but a review ordered by the White House found that there is actually “quite a lot of tolerance,” according to one senior administration official.
The Pentagon’s 12-person Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military began its 90-day review on March 24 to study ways to increase accountability, prevent sexual assault, improve the climate and culture, and better care for survivors. After talking with 600 external experts, the panel found that what the Pentagon says about sexual assault and how it handles cases and treats survivors are not the same.
“We identified that there is a troubling gap between what senior leaders say about this problem and how junior enlisted members experience the problem,” the senior administration official said. “We have heard for many years that there is no tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual assault, but we learned that in practice there is quite a lot of tolerance.”
To close this gap, the panel is making 28 recommendations and 54 sub-recommendations in a nearly 300-page report released Friday.
One recommendation is to remove the prosecution of sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence cases from the chain of command, an effort for which Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., has been fighting on Capitol Hill since 2013. The effort seems to be at a tipping point. While senior defense leaders in the past have strongly pushed back on any effort to strip commanders of this power, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said last month that he supports empowering military prosecutors to take on sexual harassment and assault cases. On Capitol Hill, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act of 2021 has 65 bipartisan cosponsors.
The panel is recommending that Congress pass a bill this year, but that the legislation should delay removing prosecution of sex crimes from the chain of command until 2023 to give the Pentagon time to build a structure that will succeed, the senior administration official said.
It’s not clear whether the Biden administration supports Gillibrand’s legislation, which would transfer serious crimes like rape and sexual assault as well as other felonies such as murder, manslaughter, and child pornography, to a military lawyer for prosecution.
“The president really shares her strong passion to take on this issue,” a second senior administration official said, noting that the review focused only on sexual harassment and assault. “He is really pleased to see there is a growing consensus that these crimes should be taken out of the chain of command, and we’re going to now look to Congress to work out the details for legislating that change.”
The group is also recommending that victim’s advocates report to someone outside of the command structure, to make sure they are “free from any sort of command influence over what sort of services a victim receives,” the first senior administration official said.
The group also makes some recommendations to be implemented in the short term. One top priority is a study of the victim support workforce within three months, and then taking actions from those findings to improve it within six months because the review found “critical deficiencies” in victim care and support, the first senior administration official said. The report includes recommendations to establish two new positions: the senior policy advisor for special victims and the special victim advocate.
The review also found a “near total lack” of a prevention workforce, despite the frequent talking point that preventing sexual assault is a top priority for the military, the official said. The report recommends establishing a staff to focus entirely on preventing sexual assault and harassment across the services, as well as creating a prevention research capability within the Defense Department.