Obama: "Scourge" of military sexual assaults "dangerous" to national security

Updated at 6:25 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON President Obama, meeting with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel and top military leaders on Thursday, pledged a "sustained effort" to combat the problem of sexual assaults in the military, warning that "there's no silver bullet to solving this problem," but promising, "We will not stop until we've seen this scourge...eliminated."

Mr. Obama said the issue is not a "sideshow," but a problem that strikes at the "heart and core of who we are" and could conceivably endanger our national security.

"The capacity for our men and women in uniform to work as a team - a disciplined unit looking out for each other in the most severe of circumstances - is premised...on trust," he said. "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, our military less effective than it can be. And as such it is dangerous to our national security."

The president stressed the need for "accountability" from those in the military chain of command.

He also said that "empowering victims" remains a concern, explaining, "We've got to create an environment in which victims feel they're comfortable coming forward, and they know people have their backs." The president warned that as efforts to combat the problem gain steam, we might actually see a rise in the incidence of reported sexual assaults in the military due to victims' increased confidence in the justice system.

And perpetrators, for their part, "have to experience consequences," the president said.

In the last two weeks, two service members have been accused of sexual misconduct. In both cases, the men had been in charge of preventing those type of crimes.

On Wednesday, the nation's top military officer warned that sexual assault in the U.S. military is costing the armed services the confidence of women in uniform that the problem can be solved.

"That's a crisis," said the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey.

Allegations of sexual assault in the military have triggered outrage, from local commanders to Capitol Hill and the Oval Office. Yet there seem to be few clear solutions beyond improved training and possible adjustments in how the military prosecutes such crimes. Changing the culture of a male-dominated, change-resistant military that for years has tolerated sexism and sexist behavior is proving to be a challenging task.

"We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem," Dempsey said.

On Thursday, Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, issued a public message to all soldiers in which he said the "bedrock of trust" between soldiers and their leaders has been violated by the string of misconduct cases.

He said the Army demonstrated competence and courage through nearly 12 years of war. "Today, however, the Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment," he wrote.

"It is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission," he said.

"We are entrusted with ensuring the health and welfare of America's sons and daughters," he added. "There are no bystanders in this effort. Our soldiers, their families and the American people are counting on us to lead the way in solving this problem within our ranks."

On Capitol Hill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., planned to introduce legislation Thursday taking top commanders out of the process of deciding whether a sexual misconduct case goes to trial. For sexual offenses with authorized sentences of more than one year in confinement — akin to felonies in the civilian judicial system — that decision would rest instead with officers at ranks as low as colonel who are seasoned trial counsels with prosecutorial experience.

On "CBS This Morning," Gillibrand called the stories of sexual misconduct "disgraceful and outrageous," and said victims have been afraid to come forward, fearing retaliation.

"We have arguably 26,000 assaults a year, but only about 3,000 are even reported, and only a handful go to trial and result in a conviction," Gillibrand said. "So what we need to do is change the system, so victims know that they can receive justice."

On Wednesday, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., also introduced legislation to require the Pentagon to establish strict new criteria for service members who can serve in sexual assault prevention programs throughout the military.

As new sexual assault allegations emerged this week involving an Army soldier who was assigned to prevent such crimes — the second military member facing similar accusations — the Pentagon said Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel is working on a written directive to spell out steps aimed at resolving the escalating problem.

But Mr. Obama, fuming at a news conference last week, warned that he wanted swift and sure action, not "just more speeches or awareness programs or training." Sexual offenders need to be "prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period," he said.

"The president has made very clear his expectations on this issue," said Pentagon press secretary George Little, adding that Hagel told Mr. Obama on Tuesday about an Army sergeant first class at Fort Hood, Texas, who faces allegations of sexual misconduct. The case involves the soldier's activities with three women, including an allegation that he may have arranged for one of them to have sex for money, according to a defense official.

Those allegations come on the heels of a Pentagon report last week that estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, based on survey results, out of 1.4 million in the services.

In remarks during a flight Wednesday from Europe to Washington that were reported by the Pentagon's internal news service, Dempsey suggested that a deepening of the sexual assault problem may be linked to the strains of war.

"I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force," he said. "Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect."

Dempsey added: "This is not to make excuses. We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this."

But experts warn that stemming an increase in assaults will require concrete changes — both in law and in military culture.

"There is not a quick fix," said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network (SWAN). "The military can't train its way out of this problem."

She said that changing the prosecution system is critical, but victims also have to be convinced that they won't be punished if they come forward. Changing the culture in the military, to foster greater respect, she said may require using outside groups and advocates to deal with assault cases so that victims don't feel intimidated by having to go to senior officers with their assault allegations.

According to Little, Hagel is considering changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would prevent commanders from reversing sexual assault convictions, along with other efforts to improve training, assist victims and strengthen discipline.

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