Jun 22, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Joint Chiefs warn against bill aimed at revamping military justice system

Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, arrives to a Senate Armed Services Committee.
Army Gen. Mark Milley arrives to a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on June 10. Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Top U.S. military officers have warned against a Senate bill aimed at sweeping changes across the military justice system, including how sexual harassment, assault and other serious crimes within the ranks are prosecuted, The Wall Street Journal reports.

Why it matters: The military chiefs claim in letters written in May to Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.) and released Tuesday that the proposed bill would "undermine military leadership," per WSJ.

  • Sexual assaults jumped across all four military services to 20,500 last year — a rise of almost 38% from 2018 — survey results the Pentagon released in May show.

Details: If passed, the Military Justice Improvement and Increasing Prevention Act would strip commanders of their authority to decide whether to try serious criminal cases in court, instead allowing independent military prosecutors to make those decisions.

  • The bipartisan bill, led by Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) and Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), has enough support to overcome the chamber’s 60-vote threshold to advance most legislation.

What they're saying: “It is my professional opinion that removing commanders from the prosecution decisions, process, and accountability 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,” chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Army Gen. Mark Milley wrote.

  • "Large scale removal of commanders’ authority could cause sailors to doubt the capabilities of their commanders or to believe that their commanders operate without the full trust of their superiors,” Chief of Naval Operations Adm. Michael Gilday noted.
    • “I have seen no evidence that there is a lack of trust among victims for all crimes for which the punishment exceeds one year of confinement.”
  • Yes, but: “[I]n the specific and limited circumstance of sexual assault, I remain open-minded to all solutions," Milley added.
  • He asked that any changes to commanders’ authority “be rigorously analyzed, evidence-based, and narrow in scope, limited only to sexual assault and related offenses.”

The other side: Gillibrand called the comments from the military leaders disappointing but unsurprising.

  • “The chain of command has always fought to protect the status quo, just as they are doing here,” she said, per the WSJ. “Their arguments are recycled talking points from the battles for progress in the past and are void of any coherent argument beyond the vapid 'good order and discipline.'"

Of note via the WSJ: "[I]t is unusual for military leaders to offer such detailed arguments against pending legislation."

What to watch: A comparable House bill is set to be introduced on Wednesday.

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