Top general drops opposition to change in sex assault policy

FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2021, file photo, President Joe Biden walks with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, second from left, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as he arrives at the Pentagon in Washington. Milley says he is now open to considering a proposal to take decisions on sexual assault prosecution out of the hands of military commanders. This is a potentially significant shift in the debate over combating sexual assault in the military.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File)
FILE - In this Feb. 10, 2021, file photo, President Joe Biden walks with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Mark Milley, second from left, and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin as he arrives at the Pentagon in Washington. Milley says he is now open to considering a proposal to take decisions on sexual assault prosecution out of the hands of military commanders. This is a potentially significant shift in the debate over combating sexual assault in the military.(AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File) (Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved.)

WASHINGTON – In a potentially significant shift in the debate over combating sexual assault in the military, the nation’s top general says he is dropping his opposition to a proposal to take decisions on sexual assault prosecution out of the hands of commanders.

Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, stopped short of endorsing the changes recommended by an independent review panel. But in an interview with The Associated Press and CNN, Milley said he is now open to considering them because the problem of sexual assault in the military has persisted despite other efforts to solve it.

“We’ve been at it for years, and we haven’t effectively moved the needle,” he said. “We have to. We must.”

The comments by Milley, as arguably the most influential officer and as the senior military adviser to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and to President Joe Biden, are likely to carry considerable weight among the service chiefs and add to momentum for the change.

Austin, himself a former senior commander and former vice chief of the Army, has not publicly commented on the review commission’s proposal, but it is his creation and thus its recommendations are seen as especially weighty. Lawmakers are also stepping up pressure for the change.

Milley said he would reserve judgment on the proposal to take prosecution authority on sexual assault cases away from commanders until the review commission has finished its work and its recommendations are fully debated within the military leadership.

The review commission submitted its initial recommendations to Austin late last month. Officials have said they expect him to give service leaders about a month to review and respond.

The review panel said that for certain special victims crimes, designated independent judge advocates reporting to a civilian-led office of the Chief Special Victim Prosecutor should decide two key legal questions: whether to charge someone and, ultimately, if that charge should go to a court martial. The crimes would include sexual assault, sexual harassment and, potentially, certain hate crimes.