WASHINGTON – President Barack Obama said Thursday the nation's military leaders told him they are "ashamed" of their failure to end sexual abuse in the armed services. Obama pledged to "leave no stone unturned" in the effort to halt the abuse, which he said undermines the trust the military needs to be effective.
Obama also said he has asked Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey to lead a process to root out the problem.
"They care about this and they are angry about it," Obama said at the White House, after he summoned Hagel, Dempsey and other top defense leaders to discuss a problem thrust to the fore by recent misconduct cases and a Pentagon report showing that up to 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year.
"I heard directly from all of them that they are ashamed by some of what's happened," Obama said.
Earlier Thursday, the Army's top officer acknowledged that his service is failing in its effort to stop sexual assaults.
Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, issued a public message to all soldiers in which he said the "bedrock of trust" between soldiers and their leaders has been violated by a recent string of misconduct cases.
He said the Army demonstrated competence and courage through nearly 12 years of war. "Today, however, the Army is failing in its efforts to combat sexual assault and sexual harassment," he wrote.
"It is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission," Odierno said.
In remarks to reporters after the meeting, Obama also spoke about how sexual assault undermines the trust that men and women in uniform need to work as a team.
He said he wants the military and others to explore every good idea to fix the problem, saying "I want to leave no stone unturned." Obama said Hagel would consult with Congress as well as other militaries around the world.
Allegations of sexual assault in the military have triggered outrage from local commanders to Capitol Hill and the Oval Office. Yet there seem to be few clear solutions beyond improved training and possible adjustments in how the military prosecutes such crimes. Changing the culture of a male-dominated, change-resistant military that for years has tolerated sexism and sexist behavior is proving to be a challenging task.
"We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem," Dempsey said Wednesday.
"That's a crisis," Dempsey said in remarks during a flight from Europe to Washington that were reported by the American Forces Press Service, which is the Pentagon's internal news agency. Dempsey suggested that a deepening of the sexual assault problem may be linked to the strains of war.
"I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force," he said. "Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect."
Dempsey added: "This is not to make excuses. We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this."
The Pentagon had scheduled a briefing for journalists Thursday with Hagel and Dempsey, but after the White House meeting was announced, the Pentagon news conference was postponed until Friday.
As new sexual assault allegations emerged this week involving an Army soldier who was assigned to prevent such crimes — the second military member facing similar accusations — the Pentagon said Hagel is working on a written directive to spell out steps aimed at resolving the escalating problem.
But Obama, fuming at a news conference last week, warned that he wanted swift and sure action, not "just more speeches or awareness programs or training." Sexual offenders need to be "prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period," he said.
"The president has made very clear his expectations on this issue," said Pentagon press secretary George Little, adding that Hagel told Obama on Tuesday about an Army sergeant first class at Fort Hood, Texas, who faces allegations of sexual misconduct. The case involves the soldier's activities with three women, including an allegation that he may have arranged for one of them to have sex for money, according to a defense official.
Those allegations come on the heels of a Pentagon report last week that estimated that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year, based on survey results, out of 1.4 million in the services.
That report, and a recent series of arrests and other sexual assault problems across the military, have triggered a rush of initiatives from the Pentagon and proposed legislation on Capitol Hill.
But experts warn that stemming an increase in assaults will require concrete changes, both in law and in military culture.
"There is not a quick fix," said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. "The military can't train its way out of this problem."
According to Little, Hagel is considering changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would prevent commanders from reversing sexual assault convictions, along with other efforts to improve training, assist victims and strengthen discipline.
Hagel has also ordered the retraining, recertifying and rescreening of all sexual assault prevention and response personnel as well as military recruiters, who also have been accused in recent sexual misconduct cases.
"He is going to spare no effort to address the problem," Little said, adding that additional training is "foundational" to any credible effort against sexual assault.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., introduced legislation Thursday taking top commanders out of the process of deciding whether a sexual misconduct case goes to trial. For sexual offenses with authorized sentences of more than one year in confinement — akin to felonies in the civilian judicial system — that decision would rest instead with officers at ranks as low as colonel who are seasoned trial counsels with prosecutorial experience.
"'What we need to do is change the system so victims know that they can receive justice," Gillibrand said Thursday on CBS "This Morning."
In the latest case, the Texas sergeant, whose name has not been made public, was assigned as a coordinator of a battalion-level sexual assault prevention program at Fort Hood. He has been suspended from all duties and is under investigation the Army Criminal Investigation Command. No charges had been filed, but officials say they expect them fairly soon.
A defense official in Washington said it was not yet clear if one of the three women was forced into prostitution, adding that the sergeant is being investigated for allegedly sexually assaulting one of the other two women. The allegations involving the third woman were not known.
The official spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
Just last week, an Air Force officer who headed a sexual assault prevention office was himself arrested on charges of groping a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot.