WASHINGTON: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin, in a major break from his predecessors, said on Tuesday (Jun 22) that he backed removing the prosecution of sexual assault and other related crimes from the military's chain of command.
Advocates and lawmakers have for years been calling for military commanders to be taken out of the decision making process when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault cases, arguing that they are inclined to overlook the issue.
Sexual assault and harassment in the US military is largely underreported and the Pentagon's handling of it has come under renewed scrutiny.
"We will work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, removing the prosecution of sexual assaults and related crimes from the military chain of command," Austin said in a statement, becoming the first defense secretary to support such a move.
Austin said he also backed removing other related crimes, such as domestic violence, from the military chain of command.
He said he would brief President Joe Biden on the recommendation from an independent commission on sexual assault established by the Pentagon. The panel made the recommendations that Austin endorsed.
"As I made clear on my first full day in office, this is a leadership issue. And we will lead. Our people depend upon it. They deserve nothing less," Austin said.
Austin's statement was issued on the same day a senior lawmaker released letters from the Pentagon's top brass in which they voiced deep concern over legislation supported by most US senators that would overhaul the military justice system for crimes like sexual assault.