President Obama on Tuesday vowed to curb sexual assaults in the U.S. military following the release of a Pentagon report that shows a spike in such attacks and just after the Air Force officer in charge of preventing such assaults was charged with groping a woman in Northern Virginia.
At a White House press conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, Obama said he instructed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to crack down on sexual assaults that the Pentagon report showed were up 35 percent just since 2010.
"I expect consequences," Obama said. "So I don't just want more speeches or awareness programs or training, but ultimately folks look the other way. If we find out somebody's engaging in this, they've got to be held accountable -- prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged."
Obama was forced to weigh in on the issue after Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, who led the Air Force's Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, was charged with sexual battery in Arlington over the weekend.
The new Pentagon report shows a record number of sexual assaults in the armed forces. There were 3,374 attacks reported last year, up from 3,192 in 2011, the highest number of cases the Defense Department has seen since it began tracking such incidents in 2004. And those were just the reported cases.
The Pentagon determined through anonymous surveys of military personnel that the estimated number of sexual assaults across all branches last year was 26,000.
Hagel on Tuesday warned that such a surge in attacks would impair the military's ability to attract recruits.
"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 warned.
Congress on Tuesday grilled high-ranking military officials over what they labeled a systemic failure to address a growing problem of sexual crime.
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., who plans to introduce legislation to create special military prosecutors for sexual assault cases, said the Krusinski episode proved a "failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is," which is "undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world."
Hagel recommended that military commanders not be allowed to overrule guilty verdicts issued by courts, but he did not explicitly endorse the creation of special prosecutors. Some military officials argued that such prosecutors would undermine those in leadership roles.
Obama's comments on Tuesday were his most forceful to date on the issue. And White House officials, citing Republican outrage over the Pentagon report, believe it's one of the few issues over which the administration and Congress can build bipartisan consensus.
"We have learned of an increase in the amount of service members experiencing unwanted sexual contact and a decrease in the rate that those incidents are reported," said Rep. Mike Turner, R-Ohio. He called the Pentagon report "the exact opposite direction of what would indicate a cultural and statistical shift on a problem that affects mission readiness and overall morale of our forces."