WASHINGTON — The problem of sexual assault in the military came into unsparing focus on Tuesday as the Pentagon released a study estimating that 26,000 people in the military were sexually assaulted in fiscal 2012, up from 19,000 in the same period a year before.
The military recorded only 3,374 sexual assault reports last year, up from 3,192 in 2011, suggesting that many sexual assault victims continue not to report the crimes for fear of retribution, or a lack of justice under the department’s system for prosecuting them.
The study, based on anonymous surveys, was released two days after an officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force was arrested in Arlington, Va., and charged with sexual battery.
President Obama, asked about the new numbers during a news conference Tuesday, angrily condemned the sexual assault problem in the military.
“The bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this,” he said. “If we find out somebody’s engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable, prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged — period.”
The officer’s arrest in Arlington drew strong condemnation from Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.
“If the man in charge for the Air Force in preventing sexual assault was alleged to commit sexual assault this weekend,” Gillibrand said, then perhaps military officials were not capable of investigating and prosecuting the crimes.
Gillibrand, who nearly yelled as she addressed Michael B. Donley, the secretary of the Air Force, said that the continued pattern of sexual assault of women — and to a far lesser degree of men — was “undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world.”
At the same hearing, General Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, said he was “appalled” by the conduct and the arrest.
Gillibrand is seeking to have all sex offenders in the military discharged from service, and she would like to replace the current system of adjudicating sexual assault by taking it outside a victim’s chain of command. She is particularly focused on decisions, including one made recently by an Air Force general, to reverse guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases with little explanation.
Senator Claire McCaskill, Democrat of Missouri, who is also on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is holding up the nomination of Lieutenant General Susan J. Helms to be vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command. McCaskill said she wanted more details about Helms’s decision to overturn a jury conviction in a sexual assault case last year.
McCaskill was also critical of the military’s current policies for sexual assault.
“It is hard for me to believe that somebody could be accused of that behavior with a complete stranger and not have anything in his file,” she said, referring to Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, the accused Air Force officer .
Police say the colonel approached a woman in a parking lot in Arlington near the Pentagon and grabbed her breasts and buttocks before she fended him off and called 911.
US Representative Niki Tsongas, Democrat of Lowell and cochair of the Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus, was briefed by the Department of Defense on the report on sexual assault in the military.
“The unsettling numbers released in today’s Department of Defense report certainly show that we are a long way from removing sexual assault from our armed forces,” Tsongas said in a statement. “For example, the DoD report indicates a staggering amount of instances of perceived retaliation against victims of sexual assault, which confirms the alarming and persistent anecdotal evidence my office has heard.
“The statistics in the report continue to demonstrate the seriousness of this problem and support the need to root out the pervasive cultural flaws plaguing the United States military.”
Tsongas praised an announcement by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel of a strategic plan aimed at preventing and addressing sexual assault.
“For example, the independent review panel, which will convene as early as July to examine the programs and procedures used by the military to investigate, prosecute, and adjudicate sexual assault crimes, is a critical component to assessing effectiveness and setting the foundations for future change,” Tsongas said.
While the strategic plan is a step in the right direction, Tsongas said more has to be done. “The report, combined with the string of sexual assault scandals involving military officials, confirm a deep-rooted cultural failure,” she said.