05/09/2013 05:39 pm ET Updated May 10, 2013

White House Wades Into Military Sexual Assault Controversy, Pledges Leadership

The White House delved further into the controversy over sexual assaults in the U.S. military Thursday, meeting with members of Congress in the wake of a high-profile arrest of an Air Force official and a shocking Pentagon report revealing the extent of the sexual assault epidemic in the armed forces.

Valerie Jarrett, senior adviser to President Barack Obama and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls, convened a meeting on his behalf to address the Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office's annual report, which found there were an estimated 26,000 unreported sexual assaults in the military in 2012.

Obama, traveling to Texas on Thursday, has not spoken much on the issue, but gave a brusque response earlier in the week to reporters asking about the grim statistics.

“The bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this,” he said. “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.”

Tuesday's report -- which combines the results of the Pentagon's Annual Report on Sexual Assault, the Defense Department's Workplace and Gender Relations surveys and the Centers for Disease Control's national sexual violence survey -- revealed that nearly 7,000 more service members said they experienced inappropriate sexual contact last year than in 2010, but did not report it. When the statistics are combined with a 6 percent increase in the official reports of military sexual assault in fiscal year 2012, they reveal a troubling spike in the prevalence of sexual assault and the persistence of severe underreporting.

The report came just days after the arrest and removal of Lt. Col Jeffrey Krusinski, the chief of the Air Force's sexual assault prevention program, for allegedly sexually assaulting a woman in Arlington, Va. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel said Tuesday that he is "outraged and disgusted" by the incident.

Thursday's meeting was attended by a number of White House officials on defense policy and legislative affairs, as well as a bipartisan group of 16 members of Congress who have been working to combat the epidemic of military sexual assault, according to a White House official.

"I think the fact that while we have raised the awareness of sexual assault in the military, that the assaults have actually increased during a period when Congress has been really active on this issue, certainly requires the administration to be a part of the effort," said Rep. Mike Turner (R-Ohio), who attended the meeting.

From the Senate, Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Deb Fischer (R-Neb.), Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Kay Hagan (D-N.C.), Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.), Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.) attended the meeting. In addition to Turner, Reps. Niki Tsongas (D-Mass.), Susan Davis (D-Calif.), Chellie Pingree (D-Maine), Tim Ryan (D-Ohio), Jackie Speier (D-Calif.) and Jackie Walorski (R-Ind.) represented the House, though Tsongas noted that many House members had to leave before the end of the meeting for votes on the Hill.

Tsongas, co-chair of the House Military Sexual Assault Prevention Caucus with Turner, said that the objective of the meeting was to "get a feel for all that's taken place at the congressional level, with the goal of looking for a solution."

Several pieces of legislation on the issue have been introduced in Congress this week, with more bills slated to be presented in the coming days. Turner and others who attended the meeting Thursday said an idea was introduced to combine these legislative efforts into a broader bill addressing reforms to the military justice system and the military's legal code, providing more support to victims and improving Department of Defense oversight.

One of the main statistics emphasized in the meeting, according to Turner, was the 62 percent of victims who reported their assault and said they suffered personal and professional persecution because they spoke up.

"It has a chilling effect for those who want to come forward that can't be addressed by legislation," Turner said. "It has to be addressed culturally, and the White House can take the lead on that."

Tsongas said she was encouraged in the meeting that the White House will follow through.

"The mere fact of the meeting is reflective of [the White House's] commitment moving forward with this," she said, cautioning that "there is no single bullet" when considering solutions.

Tsongas and Turner on Wednesday introduced the BE SAFE Act of 2013, following partnerships on other pieces of legislation that have recently been incorporated into the National Defense Authorization Act. Among other elements, the legislation aims to limit the almost unfettered power of a commander in sexual assault cases. Hagel recently called for such a reform, prompted by outrage over a case in which three-star Lt. Gen. Craig Franklin overturned the sexual assault conviction of Lt. Gol. James Wilkerson.

Gillibrand will introduce legislation next Thursday that calls for moving decision-making out of the military chain of command and into the hands of legal prosecutors trained in sexual assault cases. She and other congressional leaders are also looking ahead to a meeting on June 11, when they will review amendments to the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act.

"It was clear to me the White House is dedicated to taking action that will reform the system to better protect our brave men and women," Gillibrand said of the meeting.

While it is yet unclear what that Obama administration action will look like, a White House official was clear on the end goal: "to eliminate sexual assault in the military."



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