Gillibrand And Biden Protect Troops The Military Simply Left To Be Sexually Assaulted

The chain of command was never more important than the right of servicemembers not to be sexually abused. I can still hear the Pentagon saying they should never break the chain

Gillibrand And Biden Protect Troops The Military Simply Left To Be Sexually Assaulted
Navy recruitment poster, 1943.

Edited by Sam Thielman

I'M GOING TO BE TRAVELING next week with young children. My family is going to have a proper vacation, the kind that we had talked loosely about having before the pandemic happened, even if certain financial realities compel this to be something of a working vacation.

There's a lot to do in advance of that. July was, to be honest, an intense month of working on two projects that aren't announced yet (and hopefully will be soon) as well as the Nation column. I also needed to increase the frequency (and I hope quality) of these newsletters ahead of renewal season for the bulk of our annual subscribers. And as soon as next week, I'll need to do a lettering pass on WALLER VS. WILDSTORM #3, which will be out in early September. I never like admitting this, because my job is easier than most people's, but I could use a change of scenery and a relaxed pace.  

So there may not be a FOREVER WARS edition next week. If there is, it'll happen early next week, but I just may not have time to write it at all. Your forbearance is deeply appreciated—part of my deal with you, the subscriber, is that this newsletter comes out with some frequency, and skipping a week doesn't sit well with me. It would be easy enough to send out an edition that's just quick links to other people's journalism without a proper mainbar piece. But that feels like a waste to me, providing nothing that justifies you opening the email or clicking the link. From my perspective, you're paying for a guide to unsavory aspects of "national security," not for my media diet. I try to also use that to limit my self-indulgent posts. Limit, I said, not end.

All that compels me to write a third edition this week, even though publishing on a Friday or a Saturday is usually a mistake and at least one of my group chats will roast me for it. But on Friday, President Biden issued an executive order that carries transformative potential for protecting U.S. servicemembers from sexual assault—the result of over a decade of patient work by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) to overhaul the Uniform Code of Military Justice (UCMJ) in the face of substantial opposition from the Pentagon.

As the result of a law Gillibrand got passed in 2021, Biden on Friday instructed the military that investigation and punishment of sexual assault will no longer be subject to the discretion or influence of the commander of the unit to which the accused servicemember belongs. No longer can a commander decide that unit cohesion or military necessity can override the prohibition on sexually violating a fellow servicemember. As long as that discretion existed, the prohibition, functionally, did not. The extremely predictable result, as everyone with eyes on the military over the past however-many years can see, was military sexual assault skyrocketing.

One of the things you have to fight getting numb to as a reporter, and especially as a reporter covering an institution as part of its press corps, is the way an institution will deny and manipulate the truths it wishes not to address. Seems simple, but when you're part of an institution's press corps, the daily rhythms of your deadlines and the news management by the public-affairs shop can insidiously influence your judgment about what's worthy of coverage. It becomes easy to treat an intractable structural problem as either too big or too boring for the sort of journalism you need to put your back into. And if you give into that—if you don't notice it happening—then you help defeat the purpose of having an independent press corps in the first place. You become captured media. And if you think you're the exception, that you operate somehow outside this tendency, that this is a warning only for weak-minded reporters, not a super-special one like you? Pal, you're going to get assimilated.

For about two and a half years, from like late 2010 to early 2013, I was WIRED's reporter in the Pentagon. One of the many things that left a permanent impression on me was the liturgical way the Pentagon addressed the alarming and consistent rise of sexual assault in the military. The building would release data on sexual assault as a section of an annual report, usually on a Friday, with a follow-on press conference not often happening until the following week. Usually there would be a raft of policy initiatives, usually centered around increasing the number of avenues available to servicemembers for reporting their abuse, or bolstering their post-assault health care options, or throwing resources at a growing web of sexual-assault offices.

They did these things because they didn't want to address the growing body of evidence that placing redress for sexual assault within the chain of command created a permissive environment for sexual assault. The chain of command, understandably central to everything the military does, was inviolable. Individual servicemembers were not.

During and after this period, this-or-that Pentagon mouthpiece was typically dispatched to argue that the rising numbers of reported sexual assault might be a good thing, as they reflecting a rise in confidence in servicemembers who reported their abuse through the provided channels—and, they actually said, confidence in the chain of command to deal with it. This was a time when the Air Force's chief sexual-assault-prevention officer was arrested for sexual assault. I remember calling Arlington County to get his charge sheet and arrest report. Later I did an enterprise piece for The Guardian that tracked undue command influence that ensured sexual assault was an ever-present danger in the military, and for men as well as women. People invited me into their homes for that story. But I can't honestly look back at my time in the Pentagon press corps and say I was an exception to the episodic—rather than prioritized—coverage of military sexual assault.

It wasn't until 2013 that the Pentagon even entertained the idea that maybe the chain of command couldn't be relied upon to prosecute accused offenders. I cringe reading my coverage of that moment, because it was just a modest rhetorical concession with no substance behind it. Gillibrand's law didn't pass until 2021. Most often, the military at every level condescended to her for proposing taking sexual assault reprisal outside the chain of command. They treated her cure as worse than the disease, which demonstrated their disinterest in protecting their servicemembers.

Friday's action is a testament on who was and who was not committed to protecting servicemembers during this era. It is not a panacea. It doesn't guarantee justice; it removes a structural obstacle to justice. It will be up to the military to construct a zero-tolerance culture for sexual assault, and not a lot of data support the hope that it will. But the executive order, which follows on an action Biden took last year to make sexual harassment a criminal offense in the military, closes a door on an era when impunity for sexual violence was all but assured. Gillibrand and Biden deserve credit for that. We in "national security" journalism should reflect on whether we helped this moment arrive or, as I suspect, held it back.

THE INSTALLED LEADER OF THE NIGERIEN MILITARY COUP is Gen. Abdourahamane Tiani. If you're wondering "did the U.S. military train Tiani," you're asking a good question! He definitely got some form of U.S. military sponsorship. A leaked diplomatic cable published by WikiLeaks shows the U.S. embassy clearing Tiani to attend an 11-month "counterterrorism" fellowship at the National Defense University in 2009, when he was a lieutenant colonel. So weird how this keeps happening! The U.S. military is a force for geopolitical stability, they said!

As well, Nick Turse has already confirmed that another one of the coup leaders was a longtime recipient of U.S. military sponsorship. "I’m sure we will find out that others have been partners, have been involved in U.S. engagements," a U.S. official told Turse. We sure have!

WILL CARLESS AT USA TODAY watches the Pentagon's ("milquetoast") post-January 6 efforts at confronting white supremacist and far-right infiltration collapse.

IT'S HOT OUT AND BILL MCKIBBEN is inviting comparisons between the collapse of the Colossus of Rhodes and the future drowning of the Statue of Liberty.

APPARENTLY "ACTIVE CLUBS" centering around combat sports are the long-awaited American equivalent to European far-right football-centric street violence. It's never a bad time to re-watch The Firm or re-read Among The Thugs. (Yes, I am perfectly aware that not all firms are right-wing.)

FINALLY, IN A HUGE EMBARRASSMENT FOR THE FBI, federal Judge Colleen McMahon has ordered three of the "Newburgh Four" freed. This was a 2010 terrorism conviction that smelled bad from the start. "The F.B.I. invented the conspiracy; identified the targets; manufactured the ordnance," she wrote, and drove them across state lines to federalize the crimes they were inventing. It's not justice, but at least Onta Williams, Laguerre Payen and David Williams will leave prison.