Sexual assault in military fuels civil war among Democrats

A civil war between top Democrats deepened Sunday amid differences over how sexual assault and other major crimes should be treated inside the U.S. military.

The issue has transcended partisan politics and forged alliances across party lines, with hard-core conservatives agreeing with liberal Democrats that the military‘s traditional chain-of-command structure is no longer sufficient to deal with offenses such as sexual assault.

A bipartisan bill put forward by Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Republican Sen. Joni Ernst of Iowa and other senators of both parties would remove prosecutorial decisions on major crimes — including murder — from the chain of command and place them in the hands of independent military prosecutors.

The idea of taking sexual assault cases out of the chain of command has growing support across both parties and even among some top officials at the Pentagon. But key Democrats such as Sen. Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat and chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee, oppose Ms. Gillibrand’s broader bill and want the change to apply only to sexual assault incidents.

The difference in approach has sparked deep disagreements in the Democratic Party that boiled over Sunday.

“His insistence on narrowing this bill to one crime, the crime of sexual assault, you’re going to basically break apart the criminal justice system in the military,” Ms. Gillibrand told CNN’s “State of the Union” on Sunday, referring to Mr. Reed. “It’s not fair. It will destabilize and make, unfortunately, a mockery of the criminal justice system,” she said.

The two sides battled it out on the Senate floor last week. Mr. Reed reportedly blocked a vote on the broader Gillibrand-Ernst bill and said that he wants to incorporate the issue of sexual assault and chain of command into a broader defense policy bill coming later this year.

Mr. Reed also seems to be sticking to the specific recommendations made by the Pentagon’s internal independent review commission, or IRC, which earlier this year delivered its own proposed changes to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin. The changes include taking sexual assault cases out of the chain of command and putting them with independent, professional military prosecutors.

“I believe that the committee must start from a base that reflects the broadest consensus possible among our members on how best to move forward and on the recommendations of Secretary Austin’s 90-day independent review commission,” Mr. Reed said from the Senate floor last week, as quoted by The Hill news outlet.

Mr. Austin has not yet announced whether he’ll accept and implement all of the IRC’s recommendations.

Inside the Pentagon, there’s growing support for removing sexual assault cases from the chain of command, but it’s not yet clear how uniformed leaders feel about taking other crimes out of that system as well.

For example, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Mark Milley now is open to changing how sexual assault cases are handled. He told reporters earlier this month that he’s dropping his opposition to the change because it’s clear to him other efforts to address the problem haven’t worked.

“We’ve been at it for years, and we haven’t effectively moved the needle” on sexual assault and harassment in the military, he said. “We have to. We must.

“I was adamantly opposed to that for years,” he said of his previous position. “But I haven’t seen the needle move.”

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