Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault
5:02 P.M. EDT
MODERATOR: Good afternoon, everyone, and thank you so much for joining us. Today's call is going to be on background, attributed to "senior administration officials." And the contents of this call are embargoed until 11:00 tomorrow morning, Friday, June [July] 2nd.
With that, I'm happy to turn it over to our speakers, [senior administration official], who is the [redacted], and [senior administration official], who is the [redacted].
[Senior administration official], over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thanks, [senior administration official].
Good afternoon, and thank you all for joining us to discuss the President's announcement regarding the findings and recommendations of the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault in the Military.
As most of you probably know, President Biden has a longstanding and deep-seated commitment to fighting to eliminate all forms of gender-based violence. This has really been a central part of his life's work, including as an original author of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994 as a senator.
So at the very early days of his presidency, following up on a promise he made during the campaign, he asked Secretary of Defense Austin to create this Independent Review Commission to undertake an in-depth analysis over a period of 90 days, and to provide its findings and recommendations to address sexual assault and harassment in the military.
On March 24th, the Independent Review Commission, chaired by Lynn Rosenthal and comprised of 12 independent highly qualified experts, began their work. They were charged with making recommendations -- and [senior administration official] will talk about this more -- in four key areas related to accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and survivor care and support.
The Commission has met with the Secretary on several occasions to present their findings and recommendations to him. Defense Secretary Austin informs the President that he is endorsing the findings of the Commission and supports the recommendation to remove cases of sexual assault, sexual harassment, and related crimes from the military chain of command, as well as recommendations in the other key areas of prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support. The President spoke with Secretary Austin about these issues and fully supports his approach.
President Biden appreciates the leadership Secretary Austin has shown in taking these bold steps necessary to remedy this persistent problem. The President has sought to stamp out the scourge of sexual assault in the military and believes that in advancing the IRC's recommendations, the Department of Defense will be introducing comprehensive changes to implement his administration's unwavering commitment to improving both the response to and prevention of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military.
And the President would particularly like to thank the IRC chair, Lynn Rosenthal, who he has known for a very long time, and the entire Independent Review Commission for their exemplary work and dedication.
Most of all, the President is grateful to the hundreds of individuals across the Services, the many external stakeholders whom the IRC consulted with, and to the survivors who shared their stories and made recommendations to the IRC. And he's also grateful to countless other survivors of sexual assault and sexual harassment in the military, who for decades have shared their stories and their pain, as well as their courage and their resilience to continue to speak out and advocate for these much-needed reforms and to improve the pathways to healing and justice for survivors.
Finally, the President wants to acknowledge and thank Senator Gillibrand for many years of tireless efforts to shine a light on these deep-seated problems and for her efforts to build a bipartisan consensus to work for change, and is also grateful for the leadership of Senator Joni Ernst, and others, who have amplified the voices of survivors to advocate for necessary reforms to address assault and harassment in the military.
I'm going to turn it over to [senior administration official] now to provide more information about how the IRC approach their work, as well as the findings and recommendations of the Commission.
Over to you.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Thank you, [senior administration official]. And I want to begin by just really appreciating the leadership of President Biden and Secretary Austin in addressing this longstanding problem. And I want to acknowledge the support and cooperation of the Department of Defense and the Services as a part of this process.
The Independent Review Commission established that independence by creating a body of highly qualified experts, external to the Department, as the deliberative body on our recommendations. We were supported in that effort, however, by senior leaders from the services and subject-matter experts across the force.
As a part of our process, we met with over 600 external experts, including survivors, researchers, former service members, commanders, junior and senior enlisted members, and advocates. And while we have some tough findings in our report, we don't at all believe that these represent a lack of concern for this problem. Everyone we talked to -- senior officials within DOD, senior leaders in the services, and enlisted junior and senior members -- want to see change. Everyone we talked to wants to see that change. There are people working very hard to make that happen, but they often are not equipped to do so.
We identified that there is a troubling gap between what senior leaders say about this problem and how junior enlisted members experience the problem. We have heard for many years that there is no tolerance for sexual harassment and sexual assault, but we learned that, in practice, there is quite a lot of tolerance.
We found that the military justice system is not well equipped to handle sensitive cases like sexual assault, sexual harassment, and domestic violence. We note that there is a strong continuum between sexual harassment and sexual assault, and the relationship of both these problems to poor unit climates. We note also that the cyber domain has to be prioritized as a part of unit climates.
We found that there are critical deficiencies in the workforce across the services, including lack of experience and lack of specialization, which are key elements to addressing sexual assault and sexual harassment.
Nowhere is this problem more apparent than in the near-total lack of a prevention workforce. So we often hear that prevention is the key to solving this problem. But we learned that there aren't actually prevention specialists working across the services to make that happen. There is a lack of an evidence-informed public health approach to prevention.
And finally, we found that victims carry a very heavy burden. And they carry this burden whether they report or not. Many whom -- who did report regretted doing so because of what they experienced afterwards. That includes being ostracized, bullied, and having trouble accessing quality services.
I must say, and the IRC strongly believes, that leadership is the key to correcting all of these deficiencies. We've made 28 recommendations and 54 sub-recommendations in those lines of effort that [senior administration official] noted, including accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim care and support.
So I just want to highlight a few. As you know, we've recommended shifting prosecution decisions to special victims prosecutors outside of the chain of command. We've also recommended improving the handling of sexual harassment cases and a series of other improvements to the UCMJ. We've recommended equipping leaders to understand prevention and the development of an actual prevention workforce to carry out these programs.
We've made a series of recommendations to improve unit climate, including better methods to select, develop, and evaluate leaders; enhancements to the climate survey process; and greater transparency about disciplinary actions.
We've made a series of recommendations to improve victim care and support, including shifting sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates out of the command structure, largely eliminating part-time and collateral-duty victim advocates, and professionalizing the sexual assault response workforce across the board.
We've also recommended lifting the barrier to victims of sexual harassment receiving services from sexual assault prevention and response programs, which is a problem in the services, except for the Army which handles both of these problems together.
We've recommended identifying a structure within the Department of Defense to provide greater assistance to the Services in addressing sexual harassment.
Our report includes four separate reports from each line of effort. So, depending on what you're most interested in, when the report is released tomorrow, you'll be able to dive into all of these recommendations in great detail in accountability, prevention, climate and culture, and victim services. So everything you want to know about what I just highlighted is within those four reports.
Finally, I want to note that we found and we believe that commanders are essential to implementing every one of these recommendations. Most importantly, commanders are the key to improving unit climate, to changing the culture, and to protecting victims from negative consequences related to reporting sexual assault. Indeed, commanders are the key to making it safe for victims to come forward at all.
And I want to say very clearly that we reject the notion that shifting legal decisions about prosecution from command to prosecutors diminishes the role of those commanders. We believe, instead, that it enhances their role and places them in the lead of taking care of their people -- the number one job of commanders -- and creating climates of no tolerance for sexual assault, sexual harassment, and related crimes.
And with that, I will turn it back over to [senior administration official].
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So I'll just say a few more words on the process going forward, which is that the President -- the Secretary, excuse me, has made it clear that he generally accepts all of these recommendations from the IRC and that now he's going to move into the implementation process.
So as you have just heard and as you all know, this is a profound change for the Department of Defense and, really, a monumental pivot in how the department does its business.
So the Secretary has asked for the grace to, I think in his own words, "measure twice and cut once" as he thinks through implementation. And the President really fully supports that approach.
So, over the next few months, the White House and the Pentagon will be in consultation to best understand how to make these recommendations to reality, and work with Congress to amend the Uniform Code of Military Justice, as is required to make whatever legislative changes are part of these recommendations.
MODERATOR: Great. Thank you all so much. With that, we're happy to open the line to some press questions.
Q: So, in the recommendations that you made in terms of leadership selection and how you can do that better to make sure that a command climate doesn't support or doesn't tolerate sexual harassment and sexual assault, what are some of the specific recommendations that you made for that sort of selection process?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: Most importantly, we recommend using narrative and qualitative data to select and evaluate commanders so that there's a more -- a fuller picture of how they're actually addressing these climate issues.
And then we've recommended a series of improvements to the climate survey process so that they can get more on-the-ground information about the climate specifically related to sexual harassment and specific to the ability to report sexual assault. So those are some improvements we've recommended to the climate survey process.
Q: Thanks. So, I have a question for both of you. Does the Biden administration support the Gillibrand legislation that takes all felony crimes out of the chain of command? And if you don't, then don't you end up with two legal systems -- one that deals with just sex crimes and then another that deals with felony and murder and other serious crimes?
And then my other question for you is: You talked about taking victim advocates out of the chain of command. Who would they report to? How would that work? Thanks.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: I can jump in on the first one. This is [senior administration official].
So, I think it's really clear that Senator Gillibrand deserved an enormous amount of credit for her tireless efforts over many, many years to address the problem of sexual assault in the military. And the President really shares her strong passion to take on this issue. That's why he asked Secretary Austin to stand up this IRC on sexual assault and sexual harassment immediately upon taking office.
And I think, you know, the President -- this review commission has been squarely focused and was asked just to focus only on addressing the problem of sexual assault and harassment in the military. And he is really pleased to see that there is a growing consensus that these crimes should be taken out of the chain of command. And we're going to now look to Congress to work out the details for legislating that change.
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: And this is [senior administration official]. I think that there are a few different models for who the victim advocates and the sexual assault response coordinators could report to. So -- it's better -- rather than identifying one specific component, we should talk about some of those guiding principles.
And we do believe in flexibility for the services because they all operate a little bit differently, but we think this requirement should be uniform, and then, within that, the services can develop implementation plans.
But the key is that sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates need to be free of any sort of command influence over what kind of services a victim receives.
So, certainly, the commander is responsible for making sure that victims are protected from retaliation, bullying -- all of that that can happen after a report -- but actually what kind of services they might want to need to be developed by a professional victim advocate who can put a package together.
And we actually recommend a commander's package, which will include what the victim has identified as his or her needs, the kind of support they might need throughout the process, what remedies should be available for them. And these could be as simple as having some time off to go to medical or legal appointments. So, it's really very much in the details of what victims identify that they need.
So you can see, as I laid that out, that those sexual assault response coordinators and victim advocates should be within a unit where they can receive some professional supervision. So that could be within a chain where social services are happening on an installation or a chain in which they can receive that sort of support from colleagues.
They also have to be able to provide these independent recommendations, but, at the same time, they have to have key relationships with commanders. So in no way does this sort of separate those conversations. What we envision is that the victim advocates are able to work closely with commanders and serve as key advisors.
Q: Thank you. I have two questions, one being if we could get a timeline or an estimated timeline for about how long you think it will take for some of these recommendations to start being implemented and maybe, you know, until all of them are implemented.
But then, also, [senior administration official], you mentioned in your remarks that you found that there was a gap between what senior leaders say is happening and what the junior enlisted service members are experiencing. How are these recommendations going to ensure that that gap is closed and that that won't continue happening for years to come -- where senior leaders are pointing to these recommendations as they're being rolled out, but the junior service members are continuing to not see that play out at their level?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: That's really the heart of the matter. On the timeline, I think DOD is going to have to identify that. We've recommended some key priorities for immediate action. We believe that because we found such critical deficiencies in victim care and support -- and I might add that, to me, those were surprising findings, as somebody who's worked on this for some time. But because we found those critical deficiencies, we would like to see -- we recommend that manpower study be conducted on the victim advocacy workforce within three months, with additional implementation within six months.
So, we think those are priority for near-term actions. The legislative changes to the UCMJ will take -- should take some time. So we recommend, in our report, enactment dates of 2023. We think that it's important to take due care to structure this system in a way that has the best chance of success.
So, we recommend that there -- this is not an area for quick wins or quick fixes, but rather a plan that will result in sustained change over time. And we think that investment of time is what will lead to the results. We think that's what will really move the needle.
And your second question -- the gap between what senior leaders say about the problem and what junior leaders actually experience? I mean, the key finding from junior leaders -- well, from junior enlisted members -- I'm sorry -- is that they experience daily acts of demeaning language and sexual harassment. That is ubiquitous. In many units, that is a part of the climate, and that women in particular are told this is just what they should expect. We spoke with many, many survivors and also junior enlisted members who witnessed their friends experiencing sexual harassment and assault, who said that, on one hand, the leaders say there's no tolerance, but on the other hand, they're experiencing that daily.
So, by focusing on selecting, developing, and evaluating the right leaders, we should end up with commanders and leaders at all levels who actually practice no tolerance, which means interrupting these behaviors, which means setting that standard. And those things, quite frankly, while some of our package requires investment in the workforce and resources, that does not. That can start on day one -- and that is: Interrupt these behaviors, speak out, and show and practice a real no tolerance. That's how you create a positive climate.
When you take as good care of your people as you do your vehicles, that's when we'll start to see real change.
Q: Just to clarify -- thanks for the call -- just to clarify: So you're not suggesting (inaudible) until 2023 to take this out of the chain of command? And then also, if you could just give -- just to confirm that.
And then also, if you just give us a sense of whether or not you think, once these recommendations are implemented, whether the kind of situation we all saw play out at Fort Hood could still repeat itself. Is it -- or is it clear to you that once these changes are implemented, that kind of thing won't happen again?
SENIOR ADMINISTRATION OFFICIAL: So we recommend that the legislation be enacted this year, but that the provisions are enacted in 2023 -- that that kind of time is taken to appropriately build a structure which involves special victims prosecutors reporting outside of the chain of command -- of the military chain of command -- and addressing sexual assault, sexual harassment, domestic violence, and related crimes.
That's our special victims bucket -- the issues that we think should be addressed. And we believe it takes some time to establish that system. It involves a number of steps forward to do so.
And many of our recommendations parallel the Fort Hood report, particularly removing the victim advocates from the chain of command. So I think that we've identified some of those same problems. I think that when you have lea- -- it's all about leadership. It's all about commanders stepping forward and leading and having the skills to do so.
I think, today, we heard from commanders that they don't always know what to do to address their -- these poor climates -- that they're seeking out. And we recommend some steps the Department can take to provide that kind of help to commanders who step forward and say, "I want to improve my climate."
So I think careful implementation of this plan will result in leaders who are better equipped to address sexual harassment and sexual assault, and particularly the continuum between the two. So if commanders are aggressive, proactive in addressing sexual harassment -- that means stopping the demeaning language, that means addressing those who are committing the harassment, that means working appropriately through the steps that will lead to accountability. When those things happen, we hope that we can prevent situations like what tragically happened at Fort Hood.
MODERATOR: All right, everyone. That concludes our call. A friendly reminder that we are on background, attributed to "senior administration officials," and that the contents of this call are embargoed until 11:00 tomorrow morning.
Thanks all for joining.
5:27 P.M. EDT
Joseph R. Biden, Background Press Call by Senior Administration Officials on the Independent Review Commission on Sexual Assault Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project https://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/node/350672