WASHINGTON — As lawmakers on Thursday railed against the epidemic of sexual assault in the military, President Barack Obama summoned top Pentagon leaders to an emergency White House meeting to deal with the latest scandals and the perceived culture of indifference among service leaders.
The meeting included Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Vice President Joe Biden and a number of other senior enlisted advisers. Last week, White House officials held a similar meeting on the topic, that time with members of Congress furious over several high-profile assault cases in the ranks.
Obama told reporters after the meeting that the issue is a matter of national security.
"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," he said.
"This is not sort of a second-order problem that we’re experiencing. This goes to the heart and the core of who we are and how effective we’re going to be."
Earlier this month, the head of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention office was charged with sexual battery for groping a woman in an Arlington, Va., parking lot. This week, an enlisted soldier leading similar programs at Fort Hood was accused of running a prostitution ring and assaulting women.
Members of Congress had already harshly criticized military leaders for insensitivity on the topic before those cases, because of a pair of decisions by service leaders to throw out subordinates’ sexual assault convictions against the recommendations of military juries.
Several of the lawmakers from the last White House meeting held a press conference Thursday morning to push for new legislation to combat the problem.
The latest proposal, from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., would take most sexual assault prosecutions out of a servicemember’s chain of command, handing those duties to more impartial military officials.
“It’s time to change a system that is clearly not working,” said Gillibrand, who argued that rape victims too often see their legal cases ignored or undermined by commanders more interested in protecting their subordinates than fixing problems. “We need to give victims the basic confidence that justice will be had.”
The event featured a small army of Republican and Democratic senators criticizing military efforts so far, and a tearful panel of military sexual assault victims recounting the abuse their experienced from sadistic fellow servicemembers and uninterested commanders.
The Defense Department’s annual report on sexual assault in the military, released last week, showed a slight increase in reported crimes from fiscal 2010 to fiscal 2012. But the 3,374 assaults investigated represent only small fraction of the estimated 26,000 assaults in the military in fiscal 2012, based on anonymous surveys.
“What does it say about us as a people, with the foremost military in the world, when our (servicemembers) have more to fear from their fellow soldiers than from the enemy?” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.
On Wednesday, Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey acknowledged the recent problematic incidents are hurting the military’s credibility.
“We’re losing the confidence of the women who serve, that we can solve this problem,” he said. “It’s a crisis.”
The Pentagon also publicly rebuked the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. Mark Welsh, for comments he made during testimony last week blaming some of the military’s problems on the larger societal “hook-up mentality” in America.
DOD press secretary George Little told reporters those comments missed the point. “We must hold ourselves to a higher standard, and that’s what the American people demand.”
Obama said he has instructed the service chiefs to explore all options to stem the cases of sexual assault in the ranks, including studying foreign military's legal procedures and working with Congress on legislative fixes.
Gillibrand’s bill as written affects more than just sexual assault cases in the military, forcing a change in how nearly every felony is prosecuted. Military officials have balked at such sweeping efforts so far, but supporters said the recent scandals have shown the need for wide-ranging changes in the military justice system.
Lawmakers have introduced a host of other measures aimed at assault cases over the last few weeks, including ones to improve victim counseling, mandatory dismissal of troops convicted of sex crimes, and better record keeping for assault cases.
Gillibrand said she’s hopeful her measures and the others can be rolled into the annual defense authorization bill, which both chambers will begin drafting in the next few weeks.