The chairman of the House Armed Services Committee is pushing back on criticism that congressional leaders completely abandoned plans to better prosecute sexual misconduct in the ranks, saying compromise language written by congressional leaders will still provide needed reforms to the military justice system.
“[This bill] will deliver justice for survivors by bringing accountability, independence, and transparency to the prosecution of sexual assault and other sex crimes in the military,” said Rep. Adam Smith, D-Wash., in a lengthy statement on Friday “Anyone who pretends otherwise is doing survivors a great disservice.”
As part of a compromise version of the annual defense authorization bill passed by the House earlier this week, Defense Department would be required create an independent prosecutorial office within each service to handle some serious crimes, including rape, sexual assault, murder, manslaughter and kidnapping.
The move is designed to ensure those crimes are handled by specially trained officials, rather than military commanders unfamiliar with the legal specifics.
However, the provisions fall short of a plan drafted by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to transfer all serious crimes away from the traditional chain of command.
The plan received significant support among Democrats, Republicans and outside military advocates, but was dropped during negotiations on the compromise bill (which Smith was a part of) because of concerns voiced by the Defense Department about the scope of the changes.
Earlier in the week, in a Capitol Hill press conference, Gillibrand called the decision to go with the less sweeping language an insult to sexual assault victims. She said she will vote against the entire defense bill when it comes up for a chamber vote next week.
“This bill does not reform the military justice system in a way that will truly help survivors get justice,” she said. “It does not remove serious crimes out of the chain of command, which is the only way to create the professional, unbiased system that we’ve been advocating for.”
She and several other senators — Democrats and Republicans — criticized Smith and other armed services committees leaders for making the move behind closed doors.
But in his counter-attack, Smith said the bill still contains significant reforms, and lamented that their importance is being “misrepresented and maligned” by Gillibrand and her supporters.
“I have spoken with Senator Gillibrand many times this year as we crafted this legislation, and I understand that she prefers a different approach,” he said. “But her recent claims in the press that the language in the NDAA does nothing to take the commander’s authority away … simply mischaracterizes what are, in fact, bold reforms that deliver independence and justice for survivors of sexual assault in the military.”
Earlier this week, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Jack Reed, D-R.I. — who has stood in opposition to Gillibrand’s proposal for several years — offered a similar defense of the negotiation work.
“These military justice reforms are the most significant changes to the [Uniform Code of Military Justice] in decades,” he told reporters. “They were a very thorough and comprehensive result of discussions with the House, and we managed to make some significant improvements.”
The authorization bill, as currently written, would also criminalize sexual harassment under the UCMJ, bolster support for military special victim counsel offices and require new studies by Defense Department leaders into sexual assault and sexual harassment crimes.
Gillibrand’s opposition is unlikely to derail the measure, which has passed out of Congress for 60 consecutive years, typically with bipartisan support.
But the decision to drop several difficult provisions from the measure during closed-door work in recent weeks triggered complaints from a number of lawmakers, particularly Democrats who believed that many of the changes cater to the wishes of Republican lawmakers.
Similar to Gillibrand’s prosecutorial language, a provision to require women to register for possible future military drafts was dropped from the compromise bill, despite support in both chambers for the change. Efforts to address extremism among troops and repeal a still-active war authorization for Iraq were also abandoned.
The bill also authorizes roughly $740 in defense spending for fiscal 2022, about $24 billion more than what the White House requested in its budget plan.
When the first draft of the authorization bill passed out of the House in September, 38 Democrats and 75 Republicans voted against it. Earlier this week, the bill passed with opposition from 51 Democrats and only 19 Republicans.
The Senate is expected to finalize the measure next week, just before beginning its holiday recess.
Reporter Joe Gould contributed to this story.
Leo covers Congress, Veterans Affairs and the White House for Military Times. He has covered Washington, D.C. since 2004, focusing on military personnel and veterans policies. His work has earned numerous honors, including a 2009 Polk award, a 2010 National Headliner Award, the IAVA Leadership in Journalism award and the VFW News Media award.