Defense Secretary candidate, offering few details, pledges to end extremism and sexual assault in force

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As services grapple with the presence of political extremists – including white nationalists and supremacistss, in their ranks – President-elect Joe Biden’s Secretary of Defense candidate, who is black, shared his own feelings and experiences with extremism during a confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

Her testimony came after the National Guard announced it had sent 12 soldiers return from the inauguration security service from Tuesday, including two with possible links to right-wing militias.

“We also owe our employees a work environment free from discrimination, hatred and harassment,” Austin wrote in his prepared remarks. “If this is confirmed, I will fight hard to eradicate sexual assault, to rid our ranks of racists and extremists and to create an environment where everyone has the opportunity to serve this country with dignity. The job of the Department of Defense is to keep America safe from our enemies. But we can’t do that if some of these enemies are in our own ranks.

While Austin answered questions from several lawmakers on the topics, he provided few details on how he plans to track, deter or prosecute either issue.

When questioning senators, Austin shared his personal experience, as a lieutenant colonel in the 82nd Airborne Division in 1995, when an investigation revealed that 22 soldiers based in Fort Bragg, North Carolina had ties to extremist groups.

“… we woke up one day and found that we had extremist elements in our ranks and, and they did bad things that we certainly held him accountable for,” Austin said.

The investigation came after two white soldiers were charged with the racially motivated murders of two black civilians in the nearby town of Fayetteville, the Washington Post reported at the time.

“… we found that the signs of this activity were there from the start,” Austin said. “We just didn’t know what to look for or what to watch out for. “

One of these soldiers, Pfc. James Burmeister, had lost his security clearance and had previously been counseled for extremist activity, while fellow soldiers said he had displayed a Nazi flag in his barracks.

The findings, at the time, prompted the then secretary of the military to call for a global investigation into extremism among active-duty soldiers.

“But we learned from that,” Austin said. “And I think that’s one of those things that is important for our military to make sure we keep control make sure our leaders are doing the right thing so that they take care of… their troops, they understand, they know their troops, and we can never let go of the wheel on this, that this has no place in the military of the United States of America.

Austin also answered questions about the prevalence of sexual assault in the military because recent Pentagon studies have shown that while reports have increased, prosecutions and convictions have not increased.

In particular, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, DN.Y., called on him to spearhead change, after years of lamenting that senior military leaders have told her and her colleagues , that they had everything under control.

An image of the Army Spc killed.  Vanessa Guillen and #IAmVanessaGuillen are seen before the start of a press conference on the National Mall outside Capitol Hill on Thursday, July 30, 2020, in Washington.  (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

“… but we haven’t improved. And we have to improve, ”Austin said. “And we’re going to get better, we have to tackle the culture, we have to tackle the climate… it’s about leadership. It’s a matter of preparation. And it starts from the top, and we also have to work from the bottom. “

Gillibrand and some of his colleagues have suggested making the decision to investigate or file a complaint after an assault report out of the hands of commanders, who may be prompted to bury the problems in their formations, and assign that power to decision to prosecutors for sexual assault. The idea did not garner broad support in the Senate.

“I certainly believe we need to do better. Much better in terms of investigations and prosecutions as well. And I think we need to look at that holistically, ”Austin said. And I know you know the President-elect has committed to a 90-day commission to really review this nut soup, and I’m looking forward to … reading that commission. But I won’t wait 90 days to get after that. As I said, it starts with me, and you can count on me to do it from day one.

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