Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley speak to press during a briefing at the Pentagon, May 6, 2021.

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley speak to press during a briefing at the Pentagon, May 6, 2021. DOD photo / Staff Sgt. Jackie Sanders

Army Reorganizes Investigations Office After Fort Hood Review; Austin, Milley Signal More Changes

The service will remove harassment investigations from units, but keep them within the military ranks. Is that enough?

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin signaled Thursday he would support changing how the military handles sexual assault cases, but wouldn’t say whether he’ll accept a panel’s recommendation to remove investigations from the ranks. Meanwhile, Army officials announced their own changes intended to improve how some cases are investigated, including placing a civilian director atop the service’s investigative command.

At a Pentagon press conference, both Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley acknowledged that the current approach, in which unit commanders decide whether a case has merit to be prosecuted, hasn’t always worked. 

“We’ve done things a certain way for awhile, and I think, you know, we really need to kind of broaden our horizons and begin to look at things differently, and be willing to take different paths to improve things,” Austin said. 

The service chiefs and secretaries are currently weighing the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault panel’s initial recommendation to send such cases to a proposed civilian-led office. They are to provide feedback to Austin. 

However, at least one of the services has already announced an alternative fix: A new policy directive signed Wednesday by acting Army Secretary John Whitley requires that sexual harassment investigations be handled by officers outside of the alleged harasser’s brigade, effective immediately. However, the unit commander will still choose whether to designate an investigator.

“Effective immediately, if sufficient information exists to permit the initiation of an investigation, commanders will appoint investigating officers from outside the subject’s assigned brigade-sized element to conduct sexual harassment investigations,” the Army announced. 

The Army’s changes also require that within six hours of a sexual assault or sexual harassment complaint, a colonel in the chain of command of the accused person must inform that soldier’s commander to issue a Military Protective Order if it is warranted, and the installation must file the order with the National Crime Information Center.

Last, the Army’s changes direct that brigade commanders must inform sexual assault victims within two business days of the final outcome of any judicial, non-judicial, or administrative proceedings.

On Thursday, Milley, who has previously supported keeping investigations within the chain of command, said his thinking changed after seeing internal military data on the lack of trust in reporting.

“We the chain of command, we the generals, the colonels, the captains and so on - we have lost the trust and confidence of those subordinates in our ability to deal with sexual assault, so we need to make a change,” Milley said. 

The independent review panel has recommended that the defense secretary transfer decision-making authority for special victims crimes from commanders to independent judge advocates, who would be responsible for determining whether to charge a suspect with a crime, and whether that charge should be tried at court-martial. These independent judge advocates would report to a civilian-led Office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor. 

The Army’s changes, which were announced just before Austin and Miley’s press conference, were established in response to the Fort Hood Independent Review it undertook in the wake of the death of Spc. Vanessa Guillén.

The attorney for Guillén’s family said the Army’s announced changes don’t go far enough. 

“The only way to protect our soldiers and gain trust is through the I Am Vanessa Guillén bill, otherwise we will continue to see the same problems but with a different dressing,” attorney Natalie Khawam told Defense One.

A second bill, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act that was introduced by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., may already have enough bipartisan support to pass the Senate. It would also remove investigations from the military’s chain of command. 

The Army also announced Thursday that it would split up responsibilities of the general officer who is simultaneously the Army’s provost marshal and the CID commanding general, jobs currently held by Maj. Gen. Donna Martin, who led the restructuring effort.

The restructuring atop the Army’s criminal investigation command was also in response to the Fort Hood Independent Review Committee.

The service will instead hire a civilian with criminal investigative experience to become the CID director and lead the command. They will initially report to the under secretary of the Army, according to the statement. 

The Army said under the restructuring, CID will have more civilian criminal investigators than military special agents  to increase unit experience levels and maintain continuity and partnerships with local law enforcement agencies.

Fort Hood, Fort Bragg, and Fort Carson will be the first posts to implement the CID reorganization, which will be done in phases. 

The restructure will “carry [CID] through the 21st Century” and help its mission to protect people, CID spokesman Chris Grey said in a statement Thursday. 

“This comprehensive restructuring will result in an organization with enhanced capabilities, investigative stability and capacity, organized with and led by civilian and military agents, military officers, and enlisted soldiers,” he said.