“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,” he said. “That is unacceptable to me and the leaders of this institution.”
But Hagel and other military leaders said they opposed efforts by some lawmakers to revamp the military code of justice so that prosecutors and judges — and not commanding officers — would be solely responsible for handling sexual-assault cases.
Hagel, Donley and Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said that it was important for commanders to retain that authority.
“That would just weaken the system,” Hagel said. He added, however, that he would support legislation to curtail the ability of commanders to grant clemency to convicted offenders.
Welsh told senators that military lawyers would request jurisdiction in the case involving Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention branch. Krusinski was arrested by Arlington County police early Sunday and charged with sexual battery.
Police said Krusinski was drunk about 12:30 a.m. when he approached a woman in a Crystal City parking lot and grabbed her breasts and buttocks. The woman fended off her assailant, but “then he attempted to attack her again, and she called 911,” said Dustin Sternbeck, an Arlington police spokesman.
Efforts to reach Krusinski by e-mail and phone Tuesday morning were not successful.
Welsh said that he was “appalled” by the arrest and that “it is unacceptable that this occurs anytime or anywhere in our Air Force.” He said that Arlington prosecutors would make a final decision about whether to grant jurisdiction in the case to the military.
Krusinski is scheduled for arraignment Thursday in Arlington. His booking photo depicted him with a cut under his left eye and contusions on his upper lip. Police said the victim did not know her attacker.
The Air Force has acknowledged that it is struggling to contain “a cancer” of sexual assault in the ranks. The service’s leadership has faced particular scrutiny from lawmakers and advocacy groups over its handling of sex-crime cases, including the rape and assault of dozens of recruits by basic-training instructors at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas.
“Within the Air Force, it has to become unacceptable culturally,” Sen. Angus King (I-Maine) told Welsh and Donley. “The culture is what you have to deal with.”
Alice Crites, Ernesto Londoño and Ed O’Keefe contributed to this report.