Obama says he’ll change Pentagon culture as sexual assaults surge

President Obama on Tuesday said he had “no tolerance” for sexual assault in the military and urged the Pentagon to clean house after a new report revealed a sharp rise in incidents.

Obama also said that while sexual assault in the ranks was “not a new phenomenon,” he wouldn’t be satisfied with a response that did not seriously address the issue. 

“Sexual assault is an outrage, it is a crime, and that’s true for society at large,” Obama said at a joint press conference with the visiting President of South Korea Park Geun-hye. “And if it happens inside our military, whoever is carrying it out is betraying the uniform that they’re wearing.”

Obama said those found to be responsible should be court-martialed, fired and dishonorably discharged.

“I expect consequences. I don’t want just more speeches, awareness programs or training where people ultimately look the other way,” the president said.

Obama said he had told Defense Secretary Chuck HagelCharles (Chuck) Timothy HagelThe Hill's 12:30 Report The Hill's 12:30 Report Billionaires stopping climate change action have a hold on Trump, GOP MORE that the Pentagon must do “everything we can to root this out.”

“I’ve … indicated to him that we not only have to step up our game but exponentially go after it,” Obama said.

The annual report from the Pentagon found 6.1 percent of female service members said they had received “unwanted sexual contact” along with 1.2 percent of males.

The Pentagon estimates 26,000 sexual assaults took place across the armed forces in 2012, based on the results of a confidential survey. The estimate is a 37 percent increase from the last survey completed in 2010, when the department estimated 19,000 total cases.

The report found that the number of reported sexual assaults rose to 3,374 last year, up from 3,192 in 2011. That’s the highest number of reported cases since the Pentagon began submitting annual reports to Congress on sexual assault in 2004.

Hagel announced several new initiatives on Tuesday designed to hold military leaders at all levels accountable for improving military culture.

“This department may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retain the good people we need,” Hagel said.

The Pentagon has come under fire in recent weeks for how it handles sexual assault within its ranks.

Lawmakers say the military is not taking the issue seriously enough, with some seeking to overhaul how it investigates and prosecutes cases.

The action has been fueled by more than two dozen accusations of sexual misconduct by basic training instructors at Lackland Air Base last year, as well as the dismissal of a guilty verdict by a commander in a post-trial review in an Air Force sexual assault case. 

The criticism escalated this week after revelations that an Air Force lieutenant colonel who was tasked with preventing sexual assaults was charged on Sunday with sexual battery.

“While under our legal system everyone is innocent until proven guilty, this arrest speaks volumes about the status and effectiveness of DOD’s efforts to address the plague of sexual assaults in the military,” Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl LevinCarl LevinPresident Trump, listen to candidate Trump and keep Volcker Rule Republicans can learn from John McCain’s heroism Trump and GOP wise to keep tax reform and infrastructure separate MORE (D-Mich.) said Tuesday at a hearing on the Air Force.

After learning of the charges against Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, the military dismissed him from his post Monday.

“We’re all outraged and disgusted over these very troubling allegations,” Hagel said.

The Pentagon estimates the total number of sexual assaults based on an anonymous survey of service members; experts say that most victims do not report the crime to their superiors or law enforcement.

The 2012 survey found that 66 percent of women and 76 percent of men did not report the sexual crimes, down from 71 percent of women and 85 percent of men in the 2010 survey.

Hagel suggested that one reason the number of reported claims may be up is that more victims are coming forward.

“It does say something that we’re seeing more and more people come forward,” he said. “There may well be some new confidence starting to develop that we will take it seriously.”

Lawmakers said the report shows the military is moving in the wrong direction.

They are eyeing changes to the military’s judicial code, particularly in the wake of the decision by a military commander at Aviano Air Base to overturn a guilty verdict. 

“That is the crux of the problem here, because if a victim does not believe that the system is capable of believing her, there’s no point in risking your entire career,” said Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillGOP sees fresh opening with Dems’ single payer embrace Senators blast internet subsidy program It is time to make domestic terrorism a federal crime MORE (D-Mo.).

McCaskill has placed a hold on an appointment for Air Force Lt. Gen. Susan Helms because Helms also had overturned a sexual assault verdict. She said Tuesday she wants to meet with Helms before lifting the hold.

Hagel recommended last month that the military’s judicial code be changed to strip commanders of the ability to overturn guilty verdicts in a post-trial review.

Some lawmakers want the military to go further and remove the prosecution of sexual assault cases from the military’s chain of command altogether.

Sen. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten Elizabeth GillibrandOvernight Defense: Senate passes 0B defense bill | 3,000 US troops heading to Afghanistan | Two more Navy officials fired over ship collisions Overnight Cybersecurity: Equifax hit by earlier hack | What to know about Kaspersky controversy | Officials review EU-US privacy pact Senate passes 0B defense bill MORE (D-N.Y.) pressed Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh on the issue at Tuesday’s Armed Services panel hearing.

Welsh defended the need for keeping the process within the chain of command, and he said that the reporting problems also existed in the civilian sector.

“I don’t think it’s any different in the military,” Welsh said.

“I think it’s very different in the military,” Gillibrand shot back. “I think you’re precisely wrong about that. Everything is about the chain of command.”