President Barack Obama delivered a blistering rebuke of sexual assaults in the military Tuesday, saying perpetrators are “betraying the uniform that they’re wearing” and that he’s told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel the administration needs to "exponentially step up our game" to curb the abuse.
“They may consider themselves patriots, but when you engage in this kind of behavior, that’s not patriotic, it’s a crime,” Obama said. “And we have to do everything we can to root this out.”
His remarks came during a joint news conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and as the Pentagon released a report that estimates there might be more than 70 sexual assaults involving military personnel every day. It followed the arrest of the director of the Air Force’s sexual assault prevention program on a charge of groping a woman.
The military has faced sex abuse scandals for years, and Obama noted that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had been working to improve the reporting of sexual assaults. But the president said he’d told Hagel on Tuesday that the administration needed “to go at this thing hard.”
Obama and Park pledged to stand firmly together against threats by North Korea, and Obama vowed that the U.S. would defend its allies.
Obama also said Tuesday that the U.S. had a moral obligation and national security interest in ending the war in Syria, but that there wasn’t yet enough proof that Syria had crossed a chemical-weapons “red line” to warrant further U.S. involvement. “We want to make sure that we have the best analysis possible,” the president said. “We want to make sure that we are acting deliberately.”
He reserved his strongest words for the reports of sexual abuse.
“This is not what the U.S. military is about,” Obama said. “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.”
He said he’d told Hagel he wanted consequences, not just speeches and awareness training.
“If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they’ve got to be held accountable; prosecuted, stripped out of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period,” the president said. “It’s not acceptable.”
A Pentagon report Tuesday said sexual assaults reported by members of the military had risen to 3,374 in 2012, a 6 percent increase over 2011. But a survey of personnel who weren’t required to reveal their identities showed that the number of incidents of sexual assault might be as many as 26,000 a year, or about 70 a day, though the incidents weren’t reported.
The number is based on a Workplace and Gender Relations Survey that in 2012 included responses from 22,792 active-duty military personnel. This amounts to about 2 percent of the active-duty military strength.
Sexual assault includes unwanted touching of "genitalia or other sexually related areas of the body," the report says, in addition to rape or attempted sex. Roughly one-third of the incidents reported by those surveyed were cases of unwanted sexual touching, according to the survey.
On Capitol Hill, furious lawmakers said they were ready to toughen sexual assault laws, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., warned that it may take more than new legislation.
“It appears to me we’re going to have to change the mindset of the military,” Reid said. “If we need changes in the law, I’m happy to look at them very closely, but right now I’m terribly disappointed that we are not doing a better job within the military itself.”
Hagel said he was worried that the military “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 also announced a series of policy revisions, including, he said, holding "all military commanders accountable for establishing command climates of dignity and respect," as well as considering new assistance for alleged victims. A Pentagon task force is supposed to finish a review by the end of July.
On Syria, Obama said his administration needed further evidence that the regime had crossed a red line and used chemical weapons.
Noting the wording of a reporter’s question, the president said, “The operative word there is ‘perceived.’ And what I’ve said is that we have evidence that there has been the use of chemical weapons inside of Syria, but I don’t make decisions based on ‘perceived.’ And I can’t organize international coalitions around ‘perceived.’ We’ve tried that in the past, by the way, and it didn’t work out well.”
Obama said he couldn’t make a decision “based on a hope and a prayer, but on hard-headed analysis.” Pointing to his decision to go after Osama bin Laden and the late Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, he pushed back against suggestions that the lack of an immediate reaction to reports of chemical-weapon use might embolden North Korea and other regimes.
“We want to make sure that we are acting deliberately,” the president said. “But in the end, whether it’s bin Laden or Gadhafi, if we say we’re taking a position, I would think at this point the international community has a pretty good sense that we typically follow through on our commitments.”
Obama and Park vowed to take a tough stand on North Korea, with Obama warning that “the days when North Korea could create a crisis and elicit concessions, those days are over.”
He and Park said the two nations were prepared to engage with North Korea diplomatically, but Obama said, “The burden is on Pyongyang” to make the talks meaningful. “So far we haven’t seen actions on the part of North Korea that they’re prepared to move in a different direction,” he said.
Michael Doyle contributed to this report