Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel on Friday ordered the military to recertify every person involved in programs designed to prevent and respond to sexual assault, an acknowledgement that assaults have escalated beyond the Pentagon's control.
He said this step is one among many that will be taken to fix the problem of sexual abuse and sexual harassment within every branch of the military.
At a news conference with Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Hagel said he believes alcohol use is "a very big factor" in many sexual assault and sexual harassment cases, but there are many pieces to the problem.
Hagel said it has become clear to him since taking office in February that holding people accountable for their actions is important, but simply firing people is not a solution.
"Who are you going to fire?" he asked.
A catalyst for congressional outrage has been the disclosure in recent days of at least two cases in which a military member with responsibility for sexual assault prevention programs has himself been accused of sexual misconduct.
Earlier Friday, the Air Force's top general said that sexual assaults in his branch of the military typically involve alcohol use and can be traced to a lack of respect for women.
"We have a problem with respect for women that leads to many of the situations that result in sexual assault in our Air Force," Gen. Mark Welsh told reporters in a lengthy interview in his Pentagon offices.
He spoke one day after he and other military leaders were summoned to the White House to discuss the sexual assault problem with President Obama, who has expressed impatience with the Pentagon's failure to solve it.
Welsh said combatting the problem, which he characterized as a crisis, is his No. 1 priority as the Air Force chief of staff. He said he reviews every reported case of sexual assault; last year there were 792 in the Air Force.
Welsh addressed criticism about his comment last week, in response to questions at a congressional hearing, that the problem can be explained in part by a "hook-up mentality" in the wider society. Some said his remark implied that the blame rests mainly with victims.
"If I had this to do over again, I would take more time to answer the question and not try to compress it," he said, adding that his point was that every person who enters the Air Force needs to be instructed in "this idea of respect, inclusion, diversity and value of every individual."
"Now, I didn't say it that way in the hearing, and I wish I had because I think it gave, especially victims, the opportunity for someone to interpret what I said as blaming the victims," he said, adding that as a result, "I am sorry about that because there is nothing that is farther from the truth."
Obama said after Thursday's meeting with the military leaders that he is determined to eliminate the "scourge" of sexual assault in the military, while cautioning that it will take a long and sustained effort by all military members.
"There is no silver bullet to solving this problem," Obama said.
"We will not stop until we've seen this scourge, from what is the greatest military in the world, eliminated," he told reporters.
Senior military officers are speaking about the problem with increasing bluntness and expressions of regret. Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on Wednesday called it a "crisis" in the ranks, and on Thursday the Army chief of staff, Gen. Ray Odierno, publicly acknowledged his service's efforts are "failing."
"They care about this and they are angry about it," Obama said.
"Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be," the president said.
Those summoned to the White House by Obama included not just Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, Dempsey and the chiefs of each military service but also the civilian heads of each service and senior enlisted advisers.
"I heard directly from all of them that they are ashamed by some of what's happened," Obama said.
The president added that because assault victims may be more likely now to come forward with complaints, the number of reported assaults may increase in the short run.
"I then want those trend lines to start going down because that indicates that we're also starting to fix the problem and we've highlighted it, and people who are engaged in despicable behavior, they get fully punished for it," Obama said.
The problem, which has plagued the military for decades, has been thrust to the fore by recent cases, including that of an Air Force officer who headed a sexual assault prevention office but was himself arrested for sexual battery.
On Thursday, Army officials said the manager of the sexual assault response program at Fort Campbell, Ky., had been relieved of his post after his arrest in a domestic dispute with his ex-wife. The program he managed was meant to prevent sexual harassment and assault and encourage equal opportunity.
Hagel has said resolving the problem of sexual assault in the military is one of his top priorities, as did his predecessor, Leon Panetta. Hagel is expected to make public in coming days a written directive that spells out steps the Pentagon will take to retrain, rescreen and recertify those who lead the military's sexual assault prevention and response programs.
Earlier Thursday, Odierno, the Army chief, 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.
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.
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.
A Pentagon report last week 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.