The version of the defense spending bill that the House of Representatives passed on Tuesday watered down expected changes to the military justice system.
Lawmakers voted 363-70 to pass the National Defense Authorization Act, though the language in its final version included walking back some of the previous changes that were expected to be made to how the military handled sex crimes. This version of the bill was a compromise between Democrats and Republicans, the latter of whom held up the bill in order to force the other party back to the negotiating table.
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This version of the NDAA permits military commanders to retain their convening authority for certain crimes — sexual assault, rape, murder, and domestic violence — though it would also empower an independent “special victim prosecutor.”
Advocates and activists sought to get that power stripped from commanders.
“Despite claims otherwise, the NDAA does not remove the convening authority from military commanders. Removing that authority from commanders is critical,” New York Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, one of the leading legislators on this subject, said in a statement following the announcement.
“This bill represents a major setback on behalf of service members, women and survivors in particular,” she added. “However, we will not stop seeking true military justice reforms for our brave service members and I will continue to call for an up or down floor vote.”
On social media, she excoriated the leaders of the House and Senate Armed Services committees for changing the language in the bill, saying, "Four men behind closed doors gutted our landmark military justice reform bill in the NDAA — ignoring the calls of survivors, service members, and veterans. Enough is enough. Our bill has the support of a majority of Congress."
The lawmaker, in her statement, also referenced the recommendations from the independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military, which concluded that allowing commanders to retain this authority would fail to “restore confidence in the system.”
“The DoD Office of the Special Victim Prosecutor structure must be, and must be seen as, independent of the chains of command of the victim and of the accused all the way through the Secretaries of the Military Departments,” it reads. “Anything less will likely be seen as compromising what is designed to be an independent part of the military justice process, thus significantly undermining this recommendation … It was determined that the status quo or any variation on the status quo that retained commanders as disposition authorities in sexual harassment, sexual assault, and related cases would fail to offer the change required to restore confidence in the system.”
Back in June, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin announced his support for removing this power from military commanders, though not everyone at the Pentagon was sold.
“I fully support removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command,” Austin told lawmakers. “The department will likely need new authorities to implement many of the IRC recommendations, and we will most assuredly require additional resources, both in personnel and in funding.”
Retired Col. Don Christensen, the president of Protect Our Defenders, an organization working to reform and combat military sex crimes, praised the bill, though he acknowledged the setback.
“While these reforms are a critical first step toward ensuring justice for all servicemembers — our work is far from done. Because commanders retain convening authority and associated powers such as selecting jury ‘court members,’ commanders still will wield significant influence over court martial proceedings,” he said in a statement. “Such influence erodes the independence of the Special Victims Prosecutor and fails to address the concerns of the survivor community that conflicted commanders still have too much influence over the military justice process.”
Gillibrand and others who fought alongside her to reform how the military handles these cases have been trying to institute change for years. Rep. Jackie Speier has been proposing legislation to remove prosecutorial power from the chain of command on sex crime cases dating back a decade.
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“While this bill creates a standalone military offense for sexual harassment, there is a fatal flaw in that it fails to provide independent prosecution of sexual harassment cases, clearly state and require the independent investigators to be outside of the chain of command of the victims and those accused, and require training for the independent investigators," she said in a statement. "The lack of accountability in this regard is unacceptable and must be addressed, and I will not stop until that is achieved.”