WASHINGTON — Just minutes before his first news conference as defense secretary on Friday, Lloyd J. Austin III found himself watching an emotional video that laid out in stark terms the military’s stumbling response to sexual harassment and assault in the ranks.
A visibly distraught female Marine, seated in a car, described how her superiors were handling her case. In the video, which lit up TikTok and Twitter on Thursday and Friday, and was widely disseminated among women’s veterans groups, the Marine said she had just found out that a commanding general had decided that the person she identified as having harassed her would remain in the Corps.
Wiping away tears, the Marine said her treatment by her superiors was why women in the military died by suicide.
Few specifics of the case have emerged, but the Marine Corps hurried to assemble an official response. “We are aware of the video of the Marine in distress,” the Corps said in a statement on Twitter on Friday.
But while the statement insisted that the Marine Corps took “all allegations of misconduct seriously,” and that commanders had taken actions to ensure the Marine was safe, it did not go into detail about the commanding general’s alleged decision to keep an accused perpetrator on the job.
Another statement, from Capt. Angelica A. Sposato with the Corps’ 2nd Marine Expeditionary Force in Camp Lejeune, N.C., said that the video “specifically refers to an allegation of misconduct regarding the wrongful appropriation and distribution of personal information.” The “current administrative separation process for the accused perpetrator mentioned in the video is ongoing,” Captain Sposato said.
Mr. Austin, for his part, said he found the video “deeply disturbing,” adding that he had asked his staff for more information.
In 2019, the Defense Department found, there were 7,825 sexual assault reports involving service members as victims, a 3 percent increase over 2018. From 2018 to 2019, the conviction rate for cases was unchanged.
Soon after Mr. Austin took the helm at the Pentagon last month, he ordered a review of how the Defense Department has been handling sexual assault cases. But that issue has been a matter of congressional debate for over a decade.
Advocates for victims of sexual assault in the military say the Pentagon needs to change the way such cases are handled — by taking control over them out of the hands of commanders who often know both the victims and the perpetrators and assigning them to military prosecutors with no connection to the accused. But such an overhaul would need approval by Congress.
In the video, the female Marine’s distress cuts straight to the heart of the argument those in support of changing the system have been making, that military commanders often allow their relationships with the accused to affect their decision-making.
Military leaders have long resisted such a change, and most members of Congress have taken their cues from those in uniform. But several factors have shifted in recent years. Most notably, President Biden was a vocal proponent of these changes while running for president.
“I had a real run-in with one of the members of the Joint Chiefs in the cabinet room on the issue,” Mr. Biden said last year at a fund-raiser. Mr. Austin has also indicated that he would not reject the change out of hand, saying that it needs to be studied.
A recent report about the culture of Fort Hood, the large Army base in Texas where a female soldier was killed last year, has also been influential. An Army report after her death found a “permissive environment for sexual assault and sexual harassment,” and numerous leaders on the base were relieved of their duties as a result.
Some senators from both parties who once rejected such a change have said they are now more open to it. And some of the most vociferous opponents are no longer in Congress, and have been replaced by members who are more open to the change.