Biden backs taking sexual assault prosecutions away from military commanders -officials

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden is backing a recommendation that military prosecutions of sexual assaults be taken away from the chain of command and given to independent prosecutors to better serve the victims, administration officials say.

The change recommended by an independent review commission would represent a major shift in how the military has handled sexual assaults and related crimes for decades. It comes several years after the advent of the #MeToo response to sexual assault, harassment and discrimination against women by men in various walks of life.

But implementation of Biden’s decision could take until 2023 to implement, and his Democratic administration stopped short of endorsing legislation by the leading advocate of the change in the Senate, Democrat Kirsten Gillibrand, whose bill would also make broader military justice reforms.

Advocates and lawmakers like Gillibrand have been calling for years for military commanders to be taken out of the decision-making process when it comes to prosecuting sexual assault cases, arguing they are inclined to overlook them.

Sexual assault and harassment in the U.S. military is largely underreported, according to the military itself, and the Pentagon’s handling of it has come under renewed scrutiny.

The independent commission’s report was critical of the military’s handling of sexual assault cases, from a lack of trust in military commanders to issues with the military justice system. The commission last month recommended taking prosecution of those and related cases away from the commanders of victims’ units and giving them to independent prosecutors.

“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,” an administration official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

“We found that the military justice system is not well equipped to handle sensitive cases like sexual assault, sexual harassment and domestic violence.”

Biden’s decision was widely expected after his defense secretary, Lloyd Austin, on June 22 publicly backed the findings of the independent review commission recommending the move.

The 13-member commission was formed in February and included a number of retired military officials and experts on the issue.

Gillibrand’s bill would remove military commanders from decisions on pursuing sexual assault cases, but also do the same for other major crimes, turning such decisions over to trained prosecutors. It has majority support in the Senate.

A second Biden administration official praised Gillibrand’s efforts on the issue but declined to address her legislation, saying the independent review commission only focused on sexual assault and related crimes, officials said.

“(Biden) 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,” the second official said. Gillibrand’s bill, which has 64 co-sponsors, has been blocked from consideration on the floor of the Senate by the top Democrat and Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Democrat Jack Reed, who chairs the committee, favors removing the military’s chain of command from prosecuting cases of sexual assault but sees the legislation as too broad.

(Reporting by Phil Stewart. Additional reporting by Idrees Ali; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Heart inflammation after COVID-19 shots higher-than-expected in study of U.S. military

By Carl O’Donnell

(Reuters) – Members of the U.S. military who were vaccinated against COVID-19 showed higher-than-expected rates of heart inflammation, although the condition was still extremely rare, according to a study released on Tuesday.

The study found that 23 previously healthy males with an average age of 25 complained of chest pain within four days of receiving a COVID-19 shot. The incident rate was higher than some previous estimates would have anticipated, it said.

All the patients, who at the time of the study’s publication had recovered or were recovering from myocarditis – an inflammation of the heart muscle – had received shots made by either Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE or Moderna Inc.

U.S. health regulators last week added a warning to the literature that accompanies those mRNA vaccines to flag the rare risk of heart inflammation seen primarily in young males. But they said the benefit of the shots in preventing COVID-19 clearly continues to outweigh the risk.

The study, which was published in the JAMA Cardiology medical journal, said 19 of the patients were current military members who had received their second vaccine dose. The others had either received one dose or were retired from the military.

General population estimates would have predicted eight or fewer cases of myocarditis from the 436,000 male military members who received two COVID-19 shots, the study said.

An outside panel of experts advising the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) said last week that reports of myocarditis were higher in males and in the week after the second vaccine dose than would be anticipated in the general population. A presentation at that meeting found the heart condition turned up at a rate of about 12.6 cases per million people vaccinated.

Eight of the military patients in the study were given diagnostic scans and showed signs of heart inflammation that could not be explained by other causes, the study said. The patients in the study ranged from ages 20 to 51.

The CDC began investigating the potential link between the mRNA vaccines and myocarditis in April after Israel flagged that it was studying such cases in people who received the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine there, and after a report that the U.S. military had also found cases.

Health regulators in several countries are conducting their own investigations.

(Reporting by Carl O’Donnell; Editing by Bill Berkrot)

Biden says U.S. commitment to NATO is ‘unshakeable’

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden on Friday said the U.S. commitment to the NATO alliance was “unshakeable” and promised to observe the principle that an attack on one member was an attack on all.

His statement was at odds with his predecessor, Donald Trump, who called the 30-member alliance outdated and at one point suggested Washington could withdraw.

“The United States is fully committed to our NATO alliance, and I welcome your growing investment in the military capabilities that enable our shared defenses,” Biden told an online session of the Munich Security Conference.

“An attack on one is an attack on all. That is our unshakeable vow.”

Trump administration officials had publicly hammered, and sought to shame, Germany and other NATO members for not meeting a target of spending 2% of their gross domestic output on defense.

Biden’s comments signaled a different approach – and one sure to be welcomed by European leaders and NATO officials.

“America’s back,” Biden told the security conference after his first virtual meeting with Group of Seven world leaders.

“I know the past few years have strained and tested our transatlantic relationship, but the United States is determined – determined – to re-engage with Europe, to consult with you, to earn back our position of trusted leadership,” he said. Biden said the U.S. military was conducting a comprehensive review of its military posture around the world, but he had lifted orders to withdraw U.S. troops from Germany – another decision by the Trump administration that had shocked allies.

In addition, Biden said he had lifted a cap imposed by the previous administration on the number of U.S. forces that could be based in Germany.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Andrea Shalal; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Howard Goller)

Biden decides to stick with Space Force as branch of U.S. military

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Joe Biden is looking at all policies put in place by Republican predecessor Donald Trump, with a view toward possibly rolling them back, but not so the U.S. Space Force.

“They absolutely have the full support of the Biden administration,” White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters on Wednesday about the Space Force, a day after her dismissal of a question about the service suggested Biden was less than enthusiastic about it.

The Space Force was created as a separate branch of the U.S. military by Trump, who spoke enthusiastically about the need for a force to protect American interests in orbit and celebrated its new flag in an Oval Office ceremony.

Since it was carved out of the Air Force, there had been speculation that Biden might seek to send the Space Force back to where it was before and deny Trump a signature achievement.

But Biden has decided to keep what has been called the world’s only independent space force, officially established in December 2019.

“We are not revisiting the decision to establish the Space Force,” Psaki said.

(Reporting by Nandita Bose and Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Cooney)

China says U.S. military in South China Sea not good for peace

By Cate Cadell

BEIJING (Reuters) – The United States often sends ships and aircraft into the South China Sea to “flex its muscles” and this is not good for peace, China’s Foreign Ministry said on Monday, after a U.S. aircraft carrier group sailed into the disputed waterway.

The strategic South China Sea, through which trillions of dollars in trade flows each year, has long been a focus of contention between Beijing and Washington, with China particularly angered by U.S. military activity there.

The U.S. carrier group led by the USS Theodore Roosevelt and accompanied by three warships, entered the waterway on Saturday to promote “freedom of the seas,” the U.S. military said, just days after Joe Biden became U.S. president..

“The United States frequently sends aircraft and vessels into the South China Sea to flex its muscles,” the foreign ministry spokesman, Zhao Lijian, told reporters, responding to the U.S. mission.

“This is not conducive to peace and stability in the region.”

China has repeatedly complained about U.S. Navy ships getting close to islands it occupies in the South China Sea, where Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan all have competing claims.

The carrier group entered the South China Sea at the same time as Chinese-claimed Taiwan reported incursions by Chinese air force jets into the southwestern part of its air defense identification zone, prompting concern from Washington.

China has not commented on what its air force was doing, and Zhao referred questions to the defense ministry.

He reiterated China’s position that Taiwan is an inalienable part of China and that the United States should abide by the “one China” principle.

Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen visited a radar base in the north of the island on Monday, and praised its ability to track Chinese forces, her office said.

“From last year until now, our radar station has detected nearly 2,000 communist aircraft and more than 400 communist ships, allowing us to quickly monitor and drive them away, and fully guard the sea and airspace,” she told officers.

Taiwan’s defense ministry added that just a single Chinese aircraft flew into its defense zone on Monday, an anti-submarine Y-8 aircraft.

Biden’s new administration says the U.S. commitment to Taiwan is “rock-solid”.

The United States, like most countries, has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan but is the democratic island’s most important international backer and main arms supplier, to China’s anger.

(Reporting by Cate Cadell; Writing and additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in Taipei; Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

No intensive care beds for most Californians as COVID-19 surges

By Sharon Bernstein

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (Reuters) -There are no intensive care beds available in densely populated Southern California or the state’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, together home to nearly 30 million people, amid a deadly surge of COVID-19, Governor Gavin Newsom said on Monday.

The pandemic is crushing hospitals in the most-populous U.S. state, even as the U.S. government and two of the nation’s largest pharmacy chains began a nationwide campaign on Monday to vaccinate nursing home residents against the highly contagious respiratory disease.

The U.S. death toll from the virus has accelerated in recent weeks to 2,627 per day on a seven-day average, according to a Reuters tally.

The University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has said U.S. COVID-19 deaths will peak in January, when its widely cited model projects that more than 100,000 people will die as the toll marches to nearly 562,000 by April 1.

Nationwide, the number of hospitalized COVID-19 patients on Monday stood at nearly 113,400, near a record high of over 114,200 set on Friday, according to a Reuters tally.

In California, Newsom told a remote news conference he had requested help from nurses, doctors and medical technicians in the U.S. military, and is hoping that 200 people can be deployed. The state has also sent nearly 700 additional medical staff to beleaguered hospitals, and opened up clinics in unused state buildings, a closed sports arena and other locations.

California Secretary of Health and Human Services Mark Ghaly said many hospitals in the state may also soon run out of room for patients who need to be admitted but do not require intensive care.

Ghaly told the news conference the current surge was related to gatherings that took place over the Thanksgiving holiday and that a similar surge is expected after Christmas and New Year’s, he said.

Newsom pleaded with Californians to comply with stay-at-home orders that restrict activity in most but not all of the state. “We are not victims of fate,” he said.

The governor added that the strain of the virus ravaging California was not the new, highly contagious version emerging in the UK, Newsom said.

(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Peter Cooney)

U.S. military commander says China pushing territorial claims under cover of coronavirus

By Tim Kelly

TOKYO (Reuters) – China is using the coronavirus as a cover to push territorial claims in the South China Sea through a surge in naval activity meant to intimidate other countries that claim the waters, the commander of U.S. Forces in Japan said on Friday.

There has been a surge of activity by China in the South China Sea with navy ships, coast guard vessels and a naval militia of fishing boats in harassing vessels in waters claimed by Beijing, said Lieutenant General Kevin Schneider.

“Through the course of the COVID crisis we saw a surge of maritime activity,” he told Reuters in a phone interview. He said Beijing had also increased its activity in the East China Sea, where it has a territorial dispute with Japan.

Beijing’s increased level of activity would likely continue, predicted Schneider: “I don’t see troughs, I see plateaus,” he said.

China says its maritime activities in the area are peaceful. The press office at the Chinese embassy in Tokyo was not immediately available to comment outside of normal business hours.

Japan hosts the biggest concentration of U.S. forces in Asia, including an aircraft carrier strike group, an amphibious expeditionary force and fighter squadrons. In addition to defending Japan, they are deployed to deter China from expanding its influence in the region, including in the South China Sea.

The latest U.S. criticism of China comes as relations have frayed amid accusations by Washington that Beijing failed to warn it quickly enough about the coronavirus. China has dismissed that criticism as an attempt by President Donald Trump’s administration to cover up its own mistakes.

Beijing has built military island bases on reefs in the energy-rich South China Sea, in or near waters claimed by other countries, including the Philippines, Vietnam and Malaysia. It imposed a unilateral fishing ban until Aug 16.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Peter Graff)

U.S. military says Russia deployed fighter jets to Libya

TUNIS (Reuters) – The U.S. military said on Tuesday that Russia has deployed fighter aircraft to Libya to support Russian mercenaries fighting for eastern forces, adding to concerns of a new escalation in the conflict.

“Russian military aircraft are likely to provide close air support and offensive fire,” the United States Africa command said in a statement it posted on its website and on Twitter.

Libya’s civil war has drawn in regional and global powers with what the United Nations has called a huge influx of weapons and fighters in violation of an arms embargo.

Russia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt support the eastern-based Khalifa Haftar’s Libyan National Army, which launched an offensive last year to seize the capital Tripoli.

However, in recent weeks the internationally recognized Government of National Accord (GNA) has with extensive Turkish backing pushed Haftar back from his foothold in southern Tripoli and from some other parts of the northwest.

The United States has played a less prominent role in the Libyan war than it did at an earlier stage when NATO helped rebels overthrow the country’s autocratic ruler Muammar Gaddafi.

The statement said the aircraft had arrived from an airbase in Russia after transiting via Syria, where they were repainted to conceal their Russian origin. There was no immediate response from the Russian Defence Ministry to a request for comment.

On Saturday, Russian fighters in Libya were flown out of a town south of Tripoli by their Libyan allies after retreating from frontlines in Tripoli, the town’s mayor said.

The LNA has denied any foreigners are fighting with it, but the United Nations said this month that Russian private military contractor Wagner Group had up to 1,200 people in Libya.

“Russia has employed state-sponsored Wagner in Libya to conceal its direct role and to afford Moscow plausible deniability of its malign actions,” the U.S. statement said.

It quoted U.S. Air Force General Jeff Harrigian as warning that if Russia seized bases on Libya’s coast, it would “create very real security concerns on Europe’s southern flank”.

The statement said neither the LNA nor mercenaries would be able to “arm, operate and sustain these fighters” — meaning fighter aircraft — without the support they had from Russia. Last week the LNA announced it would be launching a major new air campaign against the GNA and said it had refurbished four war jets.

(Reporting by Angus McDowall; Additional reporting by Andrew Osborne in Moscow; Editing by Alison Williams, William Maclean)

Pentagon eyes Chicago, Michigan, Florida, Louisiana as coronavirus spreads

By Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. military is watching coronavirus infection trends in Chicago, Michigan, Florida and Louisiana with concern as it weighs where else it may need to deploy, after boosting aid to New York, California and Washington, a top general said on Friday.

Air Force General John Hyten, vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the military was doing its own analysis as well as looking at data on infections compiled elsewhere in the government.

“There’s a certain number of places where we have concerns and they’re: Chicago, Michigan, Florida, Louisiana,” Hyten told a group of reporters, when asked where field hospitals could head next.

“Those are the areas that we’re looking at and trying to figure out where to go next.”

Confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States reached 100,040 on Friday, the highest number in the world, a Reuters tally showed.

The Army Corps of Engineers said on Friday it was aiming to provide facilities for 3,000 people with the coronavirus at Chicago’s McCormick Place convention center by April 24 for about $75 million.

Lieutenant General Todd Semonite, the Corps’ commander, said the Corps was looking at potentially converting 114 facilities in the United States into hospitals.

Asked about Hyten’s remarks, Semonite said he continued to be concerned about Michigan, Florida and Louisiana and had spoken with the governor of Louisiana. He said there could be a high demand for medical resources in Florida because of the aging population and added the Corps was developing options for the state.

STRAINS ON MILITARY

The military is already deploying field hospitals to Seattle and New York. A Navy hospital ship arrived on Friday in Los Angeles and another one is expected to reach New York City on Monday, where Hyten said the city was still dredging the harbor to allow the massive ship to dock.

Each ship has a capacity of about 1,000 beds and would not treat coronavirus patients, instead taking pressure off overwhelmed civilian hospitals.

But Hyten cautioned that the U.S. military only had limited medical capacity in the United States and, at some point, it would have to tap the reserve forces — while guarding against drawing medical staff away from civilian facilities.

President Donald Trump on Friday signed an executive order authorizing the Pentagon and Department of Homeland Security to call up reservists.

“We made a decision about five or six years ago that we would downsize our military (health care) capabilities in the United States … to only really focus on our deployed requirements,” Hyten said.

He estimated that the military only had 1,329 adult hospital beds staffed at any one time in the United States.

“We’re digging into the active duty force really heavily,” he said. “So the next thing that we’re going to need is to look into the reserves.”

(Reporting by Phil Stewart and Idrees Ali; Editing by Daniel Wallis)

U.S. says 50 troops now diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after Iran strike

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Pentagon said on Tuesday 50 U.S. service members were now diagnosed with traumatic brain injury after missile strikes by Iran on a base in Iraq earlier this month, 16 more than the military had previously announced.

President Donald Trump and other top officials initially said Iran’s Jan. 8 attack had not killed or injured any U.S. service members.

“As of today, 50 U.S. service members have been diagnosed” with traumatic brain injury, Pentagon spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Campbell said in a statement about injuries in the attack on the Ain al-Asad air base in western Iraq.

Symptoms of concussive injuries include headaches, dizziness, sensitivity to light and nausea.

Thirty-one of the 50 were treated in Iraq and returned to duty, including 15 of those diagnosed most recently, Campbell said.

Eighteen of the total have been sent to Germany for further evaluation and treatment, and one was sent to Kuwait and has since returned to duty, he said.

“This is a snapshot in time and numbers can change,” Campbell said.

In its previous update on Friday, the Pentagon had put the number of those injured at 34.

Trump last week appeared to play down the injuries, saying he “heard that they had headaches and a couple of other things.”

That prompted criticism from a U.S. war veterans group. William Schmitz, national commander of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, said on Friday the group “expects an apology from the president to our service men and women for his misguided remarks.”

According to Pentagon data, about 408,000 service members have been diagnosed with traumatic brain injury since 2000.

Iran fired missiles at Ain al-Asad in retaliation for the U.S. killing of a top Revolutionary Guard general, Qassem Soleimani, in a drone strike at Baghdad airport on Jan. 3.

The missile attacks capped a spiral of violence that had started in late December, and both sides have refrained from further military escalation.

(Reporting by Idrees Ali; Writing by Mohammad Zargham; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)