By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden is “110 percent” behind a legislative push to overhaul the military justice system to better serve victims of sexual assault and other major crimes, the bill’s champion, Democratic Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, said on Thursday.
Gillibrand’s remarks to defense reporters came nearly two weeks after Biden endorsed a key component of her legislation: taking decisions about prosecuting sexual assault away from military commanders and giving them to independent prosecutors.
But Biden and his defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, have stopped short of publicly backing Gillibrand’s bill, which would take other serious crimes like murder out of the chain of command as well.
The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.
Many U.S. military officials have long been wary about taking power away from commanders.
Gillibrand said she received a congratulatory call from Biden when she reached 66 co-sponsors for her legislation. She declined to offer many details from that call but strongly suggested she and Biden were closely aligned.
“There was an indication that he would love to sign that into law. So I believe that the president 110 percent supports what we’re doing,” she told the Defense Writers Group
At another point, she said: “I do not think we are in opposition to the administration at all.”
Gillibrand’s bill has been blocked from consideration on the floor of the Senate by the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee over concerns it is too sweeping.
Gillibrand noted Pentagon data showing the military justice system was not just failing women but minority service members. The data shows minorities are far more likely to face charges than their white peers.
“In the Marines, for example, you are 2.61 times more likely to be given a general court-martial, which tend to be given for more serious crimes with harsher punishments,” she said.
Democratic Representative Anthony Brown, a retired Army Reserve colonel and member of the Congressional Black Caucus, voiced strong support for the broader overhaul in companion legislation moving through the House of Representatives.
“The current military justice system is not serving our country’s higher values of justice, equity and fairness,” Brown wrote in an opinion piece in the Washington Post.
“It has put service members of color at a disadvantage and left them subject to a commander-controlled system they do not trust.”
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