Obama Says Sexual Assaults Hurt Trust Within Armed Forces

President Barack Obama said sexual assaults and harassment are undermining trust among members of the U.S. armed forces and pose a threat to military readiness.

Amid demands for action, Obama summoned Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel and the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff to the White House yesterday and said the military must make sure there’s accountability for reducing incidents of assault and harassment “at every level.”

The ability of men and women in uniform to work as a single team “comes down to, do people trust each other,” Obama said at the close of the meeting. “The issue of sexual assault in our armed forces undermines that trust.”

The resulting loss of effectiveness “is dangerous to our national security,” Obama said. He said the military chiefs told him they are “ashamed by some of what’s happened.”

Obama met with the military officials after lawmakers from both parties proposed legislation that would strip the military commanders’ authority over prosecuting sexual-assault cases and other major crimes.

The proposal -- opposed by Pentagon leaders for years and resisted as recently as last week by Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel -- is gaining momentum in response to reports of sexual assaults and harassment in the armed services, including three cases involving service members who led programs that are supposed to prevent and respond to such attacks.

‘Sustained Effort’

Obama declined to endorse such a step, saying he and the armed services chiefs would review proposals after they’re introduced.

“There is no silver bullet to solve this problem,” he said. “It is going to take a sustained effort.”

The latest case surfaced yesterday, when the Army confirmed that a soldier who headed a sexual assault prevention program for the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell in Kentucky was relieved of his post after being arrested for violating a protective order concerning his wife, whom he’s divorcing, according to an Army official.

Lieutenant Colonel Darin Haas was arrested May 15 off base and released from jail yesterday on a $15,000 bond, said the Army official, who asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to discuss the case. The official characterized the case as a domestic matter that didn’t involve sexual harassment or assault among soldiers or subordinates.

News of the Haas case emerged just two days after the Pentagon said a soldier who worked on sexual-assault prevention for a battalion of the Army’s III Corps at Fort Hood, Texas, was suspended from all duties.

Texas Case

The Army sergeant first class, who wasn’t identified by the Pentagon, is being investigated by special agents from the Army Criminal Investigation Command for “pandering, abusive sexual contact, assault and maltreatment of subordinates,” the Defense Department said in a May 14 statement.

The sergeant first class based at Fort Hood got a private first class to prostitute herself with another military service member, according to a congressional aide.

After that, the soldier tried to coax another woman in the military to do the same, according to the aide who was familiar with the matter and asked not to be identified because he wasn’t authorized to speak with the media. The second woman resisted and lodged a complaint a month ago, the aide said.

In a third case, a lieutenant colonel who led the Air Force’s sexual-assault prevention office faces criminal charges on allegations that he groped a woman in a parking lot on May 5 not far from the Pentagon.

‘A Crisis’

U.S. Army General Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, on May 15 called the issue of sexual assault “a crisis” for the armed forces.

“Clearly our system is broken,” Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, a New York Democrat, said yesterday at a news conference where she was flanked by senators and House members backing legislation to let military prosecutors who are outside the chain of command decide whether to take cases to a court-martial.

The proposal would let independent military prosecutors decide whether to refer to a court-martial any crime punishable by a year or more in prison, comparable to felonies in civilian courts, the senator said. Gillibrand said crimes unique to the military, such as going absent without leave, would remain subject to prosecution within the chain of command.

Swift Justice

“We must ensure justice is swift and certain for the criminals who perpetrate these crimes,” said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican who was one of 11 other senators announcing support for Gillibrand’s proposal. “It is clear to me that legislation is needed and our bill is an important step in the right direction.”

Under military law, commanders decide whether to bring charges in sexual-assault cases, choose the jury and later have the authority to reduce or overturn sentences.

Obama said the system must protect victims and make sure they are comfortable coming forward and assure that perpetrators suffer the consequences. Commanders must also understand that preventing sexual assault “is as core to our mission as anything else.”

He said he asked Hagel and the Joint Chiefs to conduct a thorough review of procedures and to look at how cases of sexual assault are handled in other militaries, such as those in Canada and Israel.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.