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A private attorney has accused Judge Advocate General Lt. Gen. Richard Harding and another Air Force lawyer of improperly trying to persuade the JAG corps to support maintaining sexual assault cases inside the chain of command.
Susan Burke, a Washington, D.C., lawyer who represents victims of military sexual assault, has asked the Defense Department Inspector General to investigate an October letter by Harding and Col. Jeffrey Rockwell to Air Force attorneys.
An Air Force spokeswoman said there was nothing wrong with the letter, which she described as “an internal working document.”
“As the senior military lawyer for the Air Force. Lt. Gen. Harding routinely communicates with JAGs across the Air Force about legal matters, policy issues, and professional development,” Lt. Col. Jill Whitesell said in an email. The letter “reiterated the service’s and DoD’s position about proposed changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice. His intent is to ensure Air Force leaders and commanders are current on the issue and communicate it property and clearly to interested publics, nothing more.”
In the document, titled “a message for the corps,” Harding writes: These are historic times to be a uniformed lawyer. Air Force JAGs are knee-deep in the nation’s debate on how to halt sexual assaults, a military and society-wide scourge, which has now morphed into a congressional debate on how to best organize the entire military justice system.”
Harding writes that many military leaders have interacted with lawmakers, their staffs and the media to explain why commanders’ authority is essential to military justice. “Please read, absorb and share with your commanders and media types wherever you are located,” he writes in the introduction to Rockwell’s message.
The message argues for keeping cases inside the chain of command.
In doing so, Burke said in a letter to the Inspector General, Rockwell and Harding “embark on a campaign to garner support among Air Force members for continuing the practice of adjudicating sexual assault claims in the military justice system.”
Military members are to “remain politically neutral and divorced from partisan politics,” Burke writes.
But Harding and the other services’ top JAGs had already taken a public stance on the issue when they were summoned before the Senate Armed Services Committee on March 13. At the time, Harding and his counterparts all testified they disapproved of major changes to the UCMJ.