Congress Pushes to Remove Sexual Harassment Prosecutions from Chain of Command

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Image of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen is displayed at the National Mall.
In this July 30, 2020 photo, an banner with the image of slain Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen and #IAmVanessaGuillen is displayed before the start of a news conference on the National Mall in Washington. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

A bipartisan group of lawmakers is looking to expand on military justice reforms enacted last year and take sexual harassment prosecutions outside the chain of command.

Last year's defense policy bill created independent prosecutors to handle sexual assault and some other related or serious crimes.

But a "massive oversight" kept sexual harassment within the chain of command even as the defense bill made it a stand-alone offense under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-Calif., said in a statement last week as she and other lawmakers introduced a bill to fix that oversight.

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"As long as sexual harassment courts-martial continue to be handled through the military chain of command, victims' voices will be stifled and overwhelmed by a system stacked against them at every turn," Speier, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee's personnel subcommittee, said in a Friday press release.

Rep. Markwayne Mullin, R-Okla., who sponsored the bill with Speier, said the measure would bring work started in last year's defense bill "over the finish line."

In addition to Speier and Mullin, Reps. Veronica Escobar, D-Texas; Troy Balderson, R-Ohio; Sylvia Garcia, D-Texas; Tony Gonzales, R-Texas; and Anthony Brown, D-Md., introduced the bill alongside 39 bipartisan co-sponsors. A companion bill was also introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii.

The bill, introduced Friday, came on the second anniversary of the death of Army Spc. Vanessa Guillen, who was sexually harassed by a supervisor before being killed in 2020, allegedly by another soldier at Fort Hood, Texas.

In a statement released by Speier's office, Guillen's sister, Mayra, said the bill "is vital to protecting soldiers and would have saved Vanessa's life."

Galvanized by Guillen's murder, Congress used last year's National Defense Authorization Act, or NDAA, to make a major change to the military justice system that some lawmakers had been pushing for nearly a decade.

Set to take effect in late 2023, the change will let special trial counsel, instead of commanders, make prosecutorial decisions over crimes including sexual assault, murder, kidnapping, domestic violence, stalking and child pornography.

While the NDAA also required the administration to make sexual harassment its own offense in the UCMJ, it didn't actually become a stand-alone crime until President Joe Biden issued an order to do so in January. Previously, sexual harassment could be prosecuted under other, broader articles of the UCMJ.

Last year's NDAA also stipulated that sexual harassment complaints receive an independent investigation. The bill introduced Friday seeks to ensure those investigations are indeed independent by requiring investigators to come from "outside the chain of command of the complainant and the subject of the investigation."

The Department of the Navy recently took steps in line with the NDAA's requirement for independent investigations. On Friday, Navy Secretary Carlos Del Toro issued a servicewide message saying unit commanders in the Navy and Marine Corps can no longer investigate sexual harassment complaints themselves.

Instead, commanding officers in those services will have to escalate complaints to the next higher-level commander, who will then appoint an investigating officer from outside the command who cannot be "familiar with the subject or the complainant." The policy is meant to be temporary until the Navy hires professionally trained independent investigators, according to the message.

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

Related: Biden Order Elevates Sexual Harassment as Separate Military Crime After Guillen Murder

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