Senators Say They Won't Wait 9 Years for Pentagon to Make Planned Sexual Assault Reforms

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Senators Charles Grassley and Kirsten Gillibrand speak during a news conference.
Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, second from left, with fellow Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., left, speaks during a news conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, May 24, 2016, to urge the Senate to pass the bipartisan Military Justice Improvement Act, an amendment that will be offered to the National Defense Authorization Act that would establish an impartial, fair and accountable military justice system to address the crisis of sexual assault. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP Photo)

A bipartisan group of senators is criticizing the Pentagon's "lax" timeline for implementing reforms meant to combat military sexual assault, telling the agency it needs to hurry up.

Last month, the Defense Department laid out a timeline that could see some reforms take at least nine years to come to fruition.

Instead, eight senators want reforms to happen in six months, they wrote in a letter to Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin on Tuesday.

"Ensuring the safety of all who serve and delivering justice for victims of sexual violence are not problems that can wait to be resolved on the Department of Defense's proposed timeline," the senators wrote in the letter. "The men and women who serve in our military cannot continue to operate another day, let alone another decade, under a chain of command that is unwilling or incapable of taking decisive action to address this epidemic."

The letter was organized by Sens. Joni Ernst and Chuck Grassley, both Republicans of Iowa, and Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y.

It was co-signed by Sens. Mike Braun, R-Ind.; Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va.; Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.; Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.; and Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

All eight are co-sponsors of a separate proposal working its way through the Senate that would require the Pentagon to make broad military justice reforms on a six-month timeline.

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Earlier this year, Austin created an independent commission to study new ways to tackle the pervasive issue of sexual assault in the military. Among the commission's recommendations was removing the decision to prosecute sexual assault and harassment, domestic violence and other related crimes from the chain of command.

Austin endorsed the commission's findings in July, and released a multi-step implementation plan in September.

The first group of reforms included creating offices of special victims prosecutors, a process that the Pentagon estimated would take six years to complete throughout the Guard and Reserves, while some of the reforms could take until at least 2030.

But Congress could force the Pentagon to move faster.

The Senate's version of the annual defense policy bill includes a provision, long championed by Gillibrand, that would move the decision to prosecute all serious crimes, including sexual assault, outside the chain of command within six months. In addition to going faster than the Pentagon would like, the provision is broader than it wants since it affects all serious crimes.

The defense bill, known as the National Defense Authorization Act, also contains a separate provision that would establish offices of special victims prosecutors for sexual assault and related crimes in each military department within two years.

The bill still must pass the Senate and be reconciled with the House's version before receiving President Joe Biden's signature and becoming law. The House-passed version of the NDAA would create special victims prosecutors offices in each of the military departments.

In their letter to Austin, the senators asked for a briefing by the end of November on how the Pentagon can move the decision to prosecute sexual assault and other serious crimes outside the chain of command in no more than six months.

They also want answers on how the department can, in six months, bolster the physical security of lodging and living spaces at military installations and improve training and education on military sexual assault throughout the force.

"For nearly a decade, the United States Senate has voiced its displeasure with and intent to reform the military's handling of sexual misconduct among the armed forces," the senators wrote. "We will not accept an additional 6 to 9 years of waiting for these necessary changes to be implemented."

-- Rebecca Kheel can be reached at rebecca.kheel@military.com. Follow her on Twitter @reporterkheel.

Related: Congress Faces Decision on Military Justice Overhaul

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