Obama on Sexual Assault in the Military: “I Don’t Want Just More Speeches…”

President Obama

Stung by a spate of sexual misconduct incidents in the military and probably quite embarrassed by the allegations of sexual misconduct against the Air Force officer in charge of the service’s sexual assault prevention and response effort, the President and the Pentagon have come out swinging on this important matter.

On the day after the Chief of the U.S. Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response branch — Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski — was arrested and accused of sexual battery, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel expressed outrage and disgust over the allegations and emphasized that this matter would be dealt with “swiftly and decisively.”

Today, President Obama, speaking at a White House press conference, said sexual assault is an outrage, and anyone within the military who commits the crime “is betraying the uniform that they’re wearing.”

Offering a personal message to those in uniform who have experienced sexual assault, Obama said, “I want them to hear directly from their commander in chief that I’ve got their backs…I will support them, and we’re not gonna tolerate this stuff. And there will be accountability. If people have engaged in this behavior, they should be prosecuted.”

He added, “this is not who we are, this is not what the U.S. military is about, and it dishonors the vast majority of men and women in uniform who carry out their responsibilities and obligations with honor and dignity and incredible courage every single day.”

Emphasizing zero tolerance for sexual assault, Obama said, “I don’t want just more speeches or, you know, awareness programs or training — but ultimately folks look the other way…[When] we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable; prosecuted, stripped out of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It’s not acceptable.”

Today, Secretary Hagel began his Pentagon news conference by discussing the Krusinski incident. “He’s been removed from his position pending the outcome of this investigation…We’re all outraged and disgusted over these very troubling allegations.”

Hagel called sexual assault “a despicable crime” and said it is a serious challenge to the department. “It’s a threat to the safety and the welfare of our people and the health, reputation and trust of this institution.”

In a flurry of related and perhaps coincidental announcements and activities, Hagel today announced a number of initiatives to eradicate sexual assault.

The American Forces Press Service:

The first initiatives deal with the command climate and enhancing commander accountability, requiring that the results of command climate surveys will be provided to the next higher echelon of command.

Second, the service chiefs have been directed to develop methods to assess the performance of military commanders in incorporating sexual assault prevention and victim care principles into their commands.

Hagel directed the services and defense agencies to conduct a comprehensive visual inspection of department work places, including the service academies, by July 1… similar to an inspection the Air Force conducted late last year to ensure workforces do not display “degrading, offensive materials.”

Another Hagel initiative looks at preventing sexual assault in the recruiting and early training process, including DOD-wide recruiting organizations, the military entrance processing centers [and] ROTC to assess them on their sexual assault prevention programs…

Yet another initiative looks to improve overall victim care and trust in the chain of command, to increase reporting of the crime, and “to reduce the feelings victims have of being ostracized.”

On the military justice side, Hagel asked for the acting DOD general counsel to incorporate the rights afforded to victims through the Crime Victims’ Rights Act into military justice practice and to evaluate the Air Force Special Victims Counsel pilot program “to ensure victims of sexual assault are provided the advice and counsel they need to understand their rights and to feel confident.”

Finally, the defense secretary is asking a congressionally mandated panel to speed up its work on an independent review of the systems used to investigate, prosecute and adjudicate sexual assault crimes. The legislation gives the panel 18 months to finish its review. Hagel is asking them to finish in a year.

Today, the Department of Defense also released the fiscal 2012 Annual Report on Sexual Assault in the Military reporting, among others, “In fiscal year 2012, there were a total of 3,374 reports of sexual assault involving service members as victims or subjects, an increase from the 3,192 reports received in fiscal 2011. These reports involved offenses ranging from abusive sexual contact to rape.”

The report which also includes findings from the 2012 Workplace and Gender Relations Survey of active duty and reserve component members, is available here.

Commenting on the report, Hagel said, “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…That is unacceptable to me and the leaders of this institution. And it should be unacceptable to everyone associated with the United States military.”

Finally, The Department of Defense announced today the selection of nine appointees to the “Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes” Panel.

The panel is a federal advisory committee that will conduct an independent review and assessment of the systems used to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate crimes involving adult sexual assault and related offenses under article 120 of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, for the purpose of developing recommendations concerning how to improve the effectiveness of those systems.

The secretary of defense appointed five members to serve on the response systems panel, who will join four members appointed by the chairman and ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and the chairman and ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee. The panel will convene its first meeting no later than July 1, 2013.

Secretary Hagel appointed the following members to the panel:

Former Representative Elizabeth Holtzman
James Houck, vice admiral, U.S. Navy (Ret.)
Judge Barbara Jones, U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York (Ret.)
David Lisak, Ph.D.
Colleen McGuire, brigadier general, U.S. Army (Ret.)

The following members of the panel appointed by Congress are:

Melinda Dunn, brigadier general, U.S. Army (Ret.), appointed by Chairman Levin, Senate Armed Services Committee.
Harvey Bryant, Commonwealth’s Attorney of Virginia Beach, appointed by Ranking Member Inhofe, Senate Armed Services Committee.
Holly O’Grady Cook, colonel, U.S. Army (Ret.), appointed by Chairman McKeon, House Armed Services Committee.
Professor Elizabeth Hillman, Hastings Law School, appointed by Ranking Member Smith, House Armed Services Committee.

Sources:

Obama to Military Sexual Assault Victims: ‘I’ve Got Your Backs’

DOD Unveils New Sexual Assault Prevention Strategy

Hagel Calls for Culture of Dignity, Respect in Military

Hagel Initiatives Take Aim Against Sexual Assault

DOD Releases Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Strategy

Report Helps Military Deal With Sexual Assault Problem

DOD Announces Establishment of the Response Systems to Adult Sexual Assault Crimes Panel

Photo: White House

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist