Senators concerned over DoD’s sexual assault overhaul timeline

The Defense Department is pledging major resources in its plan to overhaul the way it treats sexual assault in the military, however, a handful of powerful senators are calling into question the Pentagon’s timeline for those changes.

Eight lawmakers from both sides of the aisle, including Sens. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.), Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Joni Ernst (R-Iowa) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), wrote to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin this week with concerns that DoD’s plan will take too long to implement.

“We write to express our disappointment and concern with the vague approach and lax timeline the Department of Defense has laid out,” the senators wrote this week. “This approach does not rise to the challenge of addressing the crippling and endemic sexual assault crisis afflicting our nation’s military. Instead, the memo lays out four tiers of priorities with a deadline of 2027 at the earliest, and 2030 at the latest.”

The senators are requesting a briefing from DoD by Nov. 30 on how it will move the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other serious crimes to a professional military prosecutor. They also want assurance that DoD is developing tactics, techniques and procedures to support investigations. The letter asks how DoD will improve military installation safety and better training and education.

While the letter only asks for a briefing, DoD’s responses could spur additional legislation or action from Congress.

In his preliminary answers to the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday, Ashish Vazirani, who is the nominee for deputy undersecretary for personnel and readiness, put sexual assault first in his list of challenges to military readiness.

“I understand that the department is working through an implementation roadmap for the recommendations related to the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military,” he wrote. “If confirmed, I will work to support Austin’s vision in this area and ensure we do everything possible to appropriately address sexual assault. These behaviors cannot be tolerated.”

Vazirani said he was committed to implanting the recommendations.

“The department’s leaders must always be held appropriately responsible for addressing sexual harassment complaints,” he wrote. “To improve the quality of investigations, if confirmed I will fully support efforts to improve leadership engagement in this area, including the implementation roadmap for IRC recommendations, including investigation of all sexual harassment cases by an independent, well-trained body that is outside the chain of command. Addressing issues of sexual harassment is critical to put a stop to this readiness-detracting behavior.”

DoD announced its roadmap to changing its sexual assault policies in September. The review commission gave the Pentagon 82 recommendations.

The recommendations range from changing how assaults and harassment are prosecuted to taking better account of data through climate surveys.

“Our recommendations are really designed as a comprehensive and complimentary package to one another, these are not designed to be one standalone recommendation and forget the other ones,” Kayla Williams, one of the commissioners, said in August. “There’s a lot more meat on the bones than just changing the legal structure.”

The Senate version of the 2022 defense authorization bill requires DoD to take sex crimes and other serious offenses out of the chain of command sooner than the Pentagon’s timeline. However, it does not address everything in the review.

The Senate Appropriations Committee’s defense bill gives DoD $400 million to accelerate those recommendations.

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