“The bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this,” Obama told reporters. “If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period.”
Members of Congress likewise signaled a loss of patience, introducing a flurry of bills in recent days that would revise military law to bolster the prosecution of sexual-assault cases and give more legal support to victims.
Senators also grilled Air Force leaders about the weekend arrest of the Air Force’s chief for sexual-assault prevention on charges that he groped and attacked a woman in Northern Virginia. Some lawmakers called it an example of a cultural problem within the military that commanders have been unable to change.
“They’re failing in this regard, sir,” Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) sternly told Air Force Secretary Michael Donley during a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “If the man in charge for the Air Force in preventing sexual assault is being alleged to have committed a sexual assault this weekend, obviously there’s a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging it is.”
Other lawmakers said they were upset to learn about two cases in which Air Force generals granted clemency to convicted sex offenders, adding that the decisions would discourage other victims from reporting rape or sexual abuse.
“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 McCaskill (D-Mo.), another member of the Armed Services Committee.
Obama said he had instructed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “to step up our game exponentially ” to prevent sex crimes in the military and hold offenders accountable. “For those who are in uniform who’ve experienced sexual assault, I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I’ve got their backs,” he added.
The Pentagon, using anonymous surveys and sampling research, estimated that 26,000 personnel experienced “unwanted sexual contact” last year, up from about 19,300 in 2010, according to an ongoing Defense Department study.
Military officials said they are concerned that most victims are reluctant to press charges or formally report sexual assault because they fear retaliation or ostracism from their units. The Pentagon recorded 3,374 sexual-assault reports last year, compared with 3,192 in 2011.