People pay respects at a mural of Vanessa Guillen, a soldier based at nearby Fort Hood on July 6, 2020 in Austin, Texas.

People pay respects at a mural of Vanessa Guillen, a soldier based at nearby Fort Hood on July 6, 2020 in Austin, Texas. Photo by Sergio Flores/Getty Images

Biden Orders New Review of Sexual Assault Policies in Military

Combatant commanders are to send plans and best practices within two weeks.

On President Joe Biden’s orders, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on his first full day in office directed the Pentagon to send him their best plans and practices to address one of the most pervasive and lingering problems for U.S. troops: sexual assault and harassment within the armed forces. But whether the Biden administration will remove sexual-assault trials from defendants’ chains of command, as many advocates want, remains unclear. 

In a memo released on Saturday, Austin declared that service members cannot defend the United States “if we also have to battle enemies within the ranks.” Although Biden had asked for the report within 90 days, his new defense secretary said, “I do not want to wait 90 days to take action.”

On Monday morning, Austin told a meeting of senior leaders, including the Joint Chiefs of Staff, that this was a priority, according to Pentagon press secretary John Kirby. “This is a scourge in the military that we have not been able to get our hands around,” Kirby told MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell after Austin’s lunch meeting with Biden at the White House with Vice President Kamala Harris and Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley.

Responding to rising public and congressional pressure about sexual assault and harassment, Pentagon leaders have spent millions on education and awareness campaigns, yet struggled to make much headway. Several Senate leaders have criticized the Pentagon for putting culture above justice by refusing to removing sexual assault investigations and trials from the traditional military justice system that can require victims’ complaints to be handled within their own chains of command.

In his memo, Austin wrote, “I know this has been a focus for you and the department’s leadership. I know you have worked this problem for many years. I tried to tackle it myself when I, too, commanded. We simply must admit the hard truth: we must do more. All of us.” 

The memo was addressed to the military’s 11 combatant commanders, who sit one notch below him on the chain of command, plus the Defense Department’s civilian agency and field office directors. The secretary ordered them to send to his office within two weeks their sexual assault and harassment plans and accountability measures from the past year that appear to be working. 

“Include in your report the consideration of any novel approaches to any of these areas you believe might prove fruitful,” he wrote. 

From 2012 to mid-2019, according to the DOD’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office, defense secretaries launched more than 50 initiatives against sexual assault. Congress has inserted more than 150 related provisions into DOD-related legislation. Changes have been made to the Uniform Code of Military Justice, and thousands of service members and DOD employees have been trained as sexual assault response coordinators and investigators. 

The issue is so pervasive that Austin mentioned in his opening statement of his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee. 

“We also owe our people a working environment free of discrimination, hate and harassment. If confirmed, I will fight hard to stamp out sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists, and to create a climate where everyone fit and willing has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity,” he said at the Jan. 19 hearing. 

Several committee members pressed Austin on the issue. 

“Every secretary of defense from the last 25 years has said there is zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military, but every time they say there is zero we don’t seem to improve at all. In fact, last year the Defense Department announced a record number of assaults recorded by or against service members and the lowest conviction rate for their assailants on record,” said Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., a leader on the issue. Sixty-four percent of those in the military who reported crimes, she said, received blowback for it often within their own chain of command, a percentage that had gone unchanged since 2016. She called it a “total lack of progress or accountability within the military justice system.”

Austin said he took the issue “seriously and personally…We have to go after the culture, we have to go after the climate. This is a leadership issue. This is a readiness issue.” But he did not commit to change the UCMJ, calling only for better investigations and prosecutions. “You can count on me to get after this on day one.”

Gillibrand noted that in April 2020, Biden pledged to do “much more than a commission” when during a campaign fundraiser he told the advocacy group Protect Our Defenders that he agreed with the idea of moving serious felonies out of the chain of command for prosecution. “Yes, yes, yes,” he said, Gillibrand told Austin. 

Replied Austin: “I would like to work with the chain of command and very rapidly assess what things that there are that need to be fixed and addressed.” 

Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii, also said it was time to stop prosecuting sexual crimes within defendants’ chains of command. “It is very clear that the reforms that the Department of Defense has instituted are not nearly good enough and much more action is needed,” she said. 

Austin’s latest effort is being coordinated through the Pentagon’s office of the undersecretary of personnel and readiness.