Top Military Chiefs Express Reservations About Sex Crimes Reform Bill

Seven of eight chiefs of staff say the bill — aimed at reforming the military's criminal justice system — could undermine the authority of military leaders.

The chiefs of the U.S. Army, Navy, Marines, Air Force and other military branches have expressed reservations about a sweeping Senate bill aimed at reforming the military’s criminal justice system.

The bipartisan bill seeks to overhaul how the military handles accusations of serious crimes, including sexual assault and harassment, among other measures.

Military commanders currently have the authority to decide whether to prosecute serious crimes like sexual assault, murder and graphic imagery of children. But the reform bill ― introduced in April by a bipartisan group of lawmakers led by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) ― would “professionalize how the military prosecutes serious crimes by moving the decision to prosecute from the chain of command to independent, trained, professional military prosecutors,” said an earlier press release about the legislation.

“Sexual assault in our military is an epidemic and it’s clear that the current system is not working for survivors,” Gillibrand, who has repeatedly pushed for military justice reform, said in April as the bill was introduced. “Despite repeated efforts to protect our women and men in uniform, rates of harassment and assault continue to rise while prosecutions decline.”

Seven of eight members of the Joint Chiefs of Staff expressed their concerns about the bill in letters to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.). 

Inhofe ― one of the legislation’s most vocal opponents ― said he’d reached out to the Joint Chiefs in April to seek their personal views and advice regarding the bill. He released their individual responses on Tuesday.

Only one — Gen. John Hyten, the body’s vice chairman who is currently being sued for sexual assault — did not submit a letter to Inhofe. It’s unclear whether the senator sought Hyten’s response in the first place.

In their letters to Inhofe, the Joint Chiefs said they were concerned the reform bill would erode the authority of military leaders and therefore impact military readiness. At least two of them, however, said they were open to removing commanders’ prosecutorial authority in cases of sexual assault. 

Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he believes that “removing commanders from prosecution decisions … may have an adverse effect on readiness, mission accomplishment, good order and discipline, justice, unit cohesion, trust, and loyalty between commanders and those they lead.“

“I urge caution to ensure any changes to commander authority,” he added.

But Milley conceded that the military has “not made sufficient progress in recent years to eliminate sexual assault” and said that “in the specific and limited circumstance of sexual assault, I remain open-minded to all solutions.“

In his letter, Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville said “removing commanders’ case disposition authority would be detrimental to the good order and discipline required for effective warfighting.”

But McConville said that if lawmakers decide to approve the reform bill, he recommended that it only apply to cases of “rape and sexual assault.” 

The bill currently has the support of two-thirds of all senators — which is more than sufficient to overcome the chamber’s 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation. 

On Tuesday, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said for the first time that he supports “removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command” and said he would work with Congress to make that a reality.

Austin fell short, however, of expressing support for the more sweeping Senate reform bill. A defense official told The Associated Press that Austin ― like other top military officials ― has expressed reservations about the extensive changes the bill calls for.

As The Wall Street Journal noted, reports of sexual assault in the military have more than doubled since 2010, according to Defense Department Data.

A similar military justice reform bill is expected to be introduced in the House on Wednesday.