By JENNIFER STEINHAUER
WASHINGTON — The problem of sexual assault in the military leapt to the forefront in Washington on Tuesday as the Pentagon released a survey estimating that 26,000 people in the armed forces were sexually assaulted last year, up from 19,000 in 2010, and an angry President Obama and Congress demanded action.
The study, based on a confidential survey sent to 108,000 active-duty service members, was released two days after the officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force was arrested and charged with sexual battery for grabbing a woman’s breasts and buttocks in an Arlington, Va., parking lot.
At a White House news conference, Mr. Obama expressed exasperation with the Pentagon’s attempts to bring sexual assault under control. “The bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this,” Mr. Obama said in answer to a question about the survey. “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 president said he had ordered Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel “to step up our game exponentially” to prevent sex crimes and said he wanted military victims of sexual assault to know that “I’ve got their backs.”
In a separate report made public on Tuesday, the military recorded 3,374 sexual assault reports last year, up from 3,192 in 2011, suggesting that many victims continue not to report the crimes for fear of retribution or a lack of justice under the department’s system for prosecution. The numbers come as the Pentagon prepares to integrate women formally into what had been all-male domains of combat, making the effective monitoring, policing and prosecuting of sexual misconduct all the more pressing.
Pentagon officials said nearly 26,000 active-duty men and women had responded to the sexual assault survey. Of those, 6.1 percent of women and 1.2 percent of men said they had experienced sexual assault in the past year, which the survey defined as everything from rape to “unwanted sexual touching” of genitalia, breasts, buttocks or inner thighs.
From those percentages, the Pentagon extrapolated that 12,100 of the 203,000 women on active duty and 13,900 of the 1.2 million men on active duty had experienced some form of sexual assault. In 2010, a similar Pentagon survey found that 4.4 percent of active-duty women and fewer than 0.9 percent of active-duty men had experienced sexual assault. Pentagon officials could not explain the jump in assaults of women, although they believed that more victims, both men and women, were making the choice to come forward. In the general population, about 0.2 percent of American women over age 12 were victims of sexual assault in 2010, the most recent year for which data is available, according to the Justice Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics.
In response to the report, Mr. Hagel said at a news conference on Tuesday that the Pentagon was instituting a new plan that orders the service chiefs to incorporate sexual assault programs into their commands.“What’s going on is just not acceptable,” Mr. Hagel said. “We will get control of this.”
The report quickly caught fire on Capitol Hill, where women on the Senate Armed Services Committee expressed outrage at two Air Force officers who suggested that they were making progress in ending the problem in their branch.
“If the man in charge for the Air Force in preventing sexual assaults is being alleged to have committed a sexual assault this weekend,” said Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Democrat of New York, “obviously there’s a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is, and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline.” Ms. Gillibrand, who nearly shouted as she addressed Michael B. Donley, the secretary of the Air Force, said that the continued pattern of sexual assault was “undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world.”
She and some other members of the committee are 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 the chain of command. She is particularly focused on decisions, including one made recently by an Air Force senior officer, to reverse guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases with little explanation.
Senator Claire McCaskill, a Missouri Democrat who is also on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is holding up the nomination of that Air Force officer, Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms, to be vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command. Ms. McCaskill said she wanted additional information about General Helms’s decision to overturn a jury conviction in a sexual assault case last year.
Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, told the committee at the same hearing on Tuesday that he was “appalled” by the conduct and the arrest of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the Air Force officer accused of sexual battery on Sunday. The police say that Colonel Krusinski was drunk when he approached the woman in the parking lot and that the victim was ultimately able to fend him off and call 911.Mr. Hagel called Mr. Donley on Monday evening to express his “outrage and disgust” over the matter, a Pentagon statement said.
Ms. McCaskill was particularly critical of Colonel Krusinski as well as the Air Force for placing him in charge of sexual assault prevention. “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.While Mr. Hagel and others in the military seem open to changes to the system that allows cases to be overturned, they remained chilly to the idea of taking military justice out of the chain of command.
“It is my strong belief that the ultimate authority has to remain within the command structure,” Mr. Hagel said, which is almost certain to meet with objections as the issue continues to come under the scrutiny of the Armed Services Committee.
Under Mr. Hagel’s plan, the military would seek to quickly study and come up with ways to hold commanders more accountable for sexual assault. The chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force and the commandant of the Marines have until Nov. 1 to report their findings. Mr. Hagel also directed the services to visually inspect department workplaces, including the service academies, for potentially offensive or degrading materials, by July 1.
Sarah Wheaton contributed reporting.