Congress Approves AF Chief After Sex Scandal Brief

Gen. Mark Welsh

Satisfied with the Air Force’s commitment to crack down on sexual assault, congressional lawmakers approved the service’s new chief of staff.

Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn had used his power to hold up the confirmation of the Air Force’s incoming chief of staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, over concerns with the unfolding sex assault scandal at Lackland Air Force Base, Texas.

Cornyn backed down after his meeting with Welsh on Thursday morning, saying he felt assured Welsh would do what was necessary to resolve the situation. The Senate quickly approved Welsh’s nomination after Cornyn removed his hold.

“It’s clear Gen. Welsh shares my grave concerns over the situation at Lackland, and I was pleased to hear his commitment to following the investigation, wherever it may lead,” Cornyn said in a statement.

Welsh had told senators during his confirmation hearing that his service had failed to establish a culture that protects airmen from sexual assaults.

"What we have been doing is not working. It's not for lack of effort," he said in July. "Everyone is trying to do the right thing and figure out some way of stopping this, but the fact is we haven't. In fact, we haven't even reversed the trend."

Meanwhile, the leaders of the House Armed Services Committee thanked Air Force Secretary Michael Donley for a closed briefing on the Lackland case, and for his own promise to get to the bottom of it.

“We are deeply concerned about what has happened -- and what the investigations may yet reveal -- at Lackland Air Force Base,” read a joint statement from California Rep. Buck McKeon, the committee’s Republican chairman, and its top Democrat, Washington Rep. Adam Smith.

“We expect the Air Force to be open and transparent with the results of its investigations. Today’s briefing is a good step in that direction, but this committee expects to be fully informed as this issue evolves.”

Thus far, 38 women have reported being sexually assaulted by instructors at Lackland, the Air Force’s basic training hub, where instructors allegedly abused their authority over recruits. A military jury sentenced, Staff Sgt. Luis Walker, one of the instructors, to 20 years in prison. A two-star general directs an investigation seeking how far this scandal reached.

In their statement, McKeon and Smith acknowledged that some details of the case are not yet public, but they defended the need for Thursday’s closed-door briefing on Capitol Hill.

“We understand that today’s briefing generated concerns because it was not open to the public,” they said. “We want to be very clear, we are committed to making sure that sexual offenders are prosecuted and victims' rights are protected.  In sensitive cases such as these, open hearings can jeopardize ongoing prosecutions and investigations. This is another step in our long-standing oversight of this issue. It is by no means the final step.”

The uniformed services have redoubled their emphasis on preventing sex crimes under pressure from Congress and victims’ rights groups, and also after the release of a documentary, “The Invisible War,” shone a light onto what it called a culture of rape inside the military.

McKeon and Smith said Thursday that their committee would continue to pressure the Pentagon to curb sexual assault. Welsh testified during his confirmation hearing in July that the Air Force has thus far failed in its efforts.

The House Armed Service Committees leaders cited a few points in this year’s Defense Authorization Act, which has not yet become law. According to the statement, they were:

• Creating special victim teams for the investigation, prosecution and victim support in connection with sexual assault, as well as child abuse and domestic violence.

• Requirement for commanders to conduct annual organizational climate assessments, which include matters relating to sexual assault.

• Establish that the disposition authority for sexual assault offenses would be no lower than the special court-martial convening authority at the rank of either colonel or, in the case of the Navy, captain.

• Curriculum within each military department to provide sexual assault prevention and response training and education during pre-command and command courses.

• Establish a record on the disposition of sexual assault cases to be retained for 20 years.

Welsh will assume command of the Air Force from the retiring Gen. Norton Schwartz in a change of command ceremony Aug. 10.

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