President Barack Obama emerged from a meeting with Pentagon leaders and service chiefs at the White House on Thursday to say military sexual assault constitutes a national security threat and detailed a three-point agenda intended to combat sexual assault in the military.
Obama said everyone must be accountable in the chain of command, victims need to be empowered to come forward when assaulted, and perpetrators of sexual violence must be punished.
“The issue of sexual assault in our armed forces undermines that trust. So not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be. And as such, it is dangerous to our national security,” Obama said.
Military sexual assault, he said, “is not a sideshow.”
"This goes to the heart and the core of who we are and how effective we’re going to be,” the president said.
Obama called the meeting with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, the service secretaries, the service branch chiefs and their enlisted advisers against a backdrop of a rising rate of sexual assaults and two high-profile cases in which the suspects were sexual assault prevention officials.
Air Force Lt. Col. Jeff Krusinski, branch chief of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault and Prevention Office, was arrested near a strip club on May 5 by Arlington County, Va., police after allegedly groping a woman.
The Army is investigating Sgt. 1st Class Gregory McQueen, coordinator of a sexual assault prevention program at Fort Hood, on sexual assault allegations and allegedly forcing at least one woman into prostitution, according to an Associated Press report.
A third case involving a sexual assault prevention officer at Fort Campbell, Ky., broke late Thursday.
A recent Pentagon report said there were about 26,000 instances of sexual assault in the military in 2012. The figure represents a 35 percent increase from 2010.
“Now, the good news is I am absolutely confident that everybody in this room and our leadership, starting with Chuck Hagel and Marty Dempsey and the Joint Chiefs, as well as our top enlisted men and women, they care about this,” Obama said. “And they’re angry about it. And I heard directly from all of them that they’re ashamed by some of what’s happened.”
Obama said he has directed Hagel and Dempsey to take charge of tackling the problem.
“That starts with accountability, and that means at every level,” he said. “And that includes accountability not just for enforcing the law, but also training our personnel effectively, putting our best people on this challenge.”
Obama said Army Secretary John McHugh offered a good suggestion, saying that those put in charge of preventing these crimes need to be incentivized. He said they should be rewarded for their efforts so they don’t see the job as a sideline. That’s part of accountability, Obama said.
The military also has to empower victims and make sure they get justice, he said, with justice seeing the guilty punished.
“We’ve got to create an environment in which victims feel that they’re comfortable coming forward and they know people have their backs,” Obama said. “[The] third thing is justice for the victims. When victims do come forward, they deserve justice. Perpetrators have to experience consequences.”
Obama said he supports Hagel’s proposal to restrict the ability of commanders to overturn convictions.
Obama also said the Defense Department is working with Congress on ways to fight military sexual assault. U.S. military officials are also talking to leaders of other militaries, including Canada and Israel, to find out if they have systems in place that would benefit the U.S. military.
“The last point I’m going to make, and that is that there is no silver bullet to solving this problem,” Obama said. “This is going to require a sustained effort over a long period of time.”