WASHINGTON -- President Barack Obama delivered a blistering rebuke of sexual assaults in the military Tuesday, saying perpetrators are betraying the uniform that theyre wearing and that hes told Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel the administration needs to "exponentially step up our game" to curb the abuse.
They may consider themselves patriots, but when you engage in this kind of behavior, thats not patriotic, its a crime, Obama said. And we have to do everything we can to root this out.
His remarks came during a joint news conference with South Korean President Park Geun-hye and as the Pentagon released a report that estimates there might be more than 70 sexual assaults involving military personnel every day. It followed the arrest of the director of the Air Forces sexual assault prevention program on a charge of groping a woman.
The military has faced sex abuse scandals for years, and Obama noted that former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta had been working to improve the reporting of sexual assaults. But the president said hed told Hagel on Tuesday that the administration needed to go at this thing hard.
Obama and Park pledged to stand firmly together against threats by North Korea, and Obama vowed that the U.S. would defend its allies.
Obama also said Tuesday that the U.S. had a moral obligation and national security interest in ending the war in Syria, but that there wasnt yet enough proof that Syria had crossed a chemical-weapons red line to warrant further U.S. involvement. We want to make sure that we have the best analysis possible, the president said. We want to make sure that we are acting deliberately.
He reserved his strongest words for the reports of sexual abuse.
This is not what the U.S. military is about, Obama said. It dishonors the vast majority of men and women in uniform who carry out their responsibilities and obligations with honor and dignity and incredible courage every single day.
He said hed told Hagel he wanted consequences, not just speeches and awareness training.
If we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, theyve got to be held accountable; prosecuted, stripped out of their positions, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period, the president said. Its not acceptable.
A Pentagon report Tuesday said sexual assaults reported by members of the military had risen to 3,374 in 2012, a 6 percent increase over 2011. But a survey of personnel who werent required to reveal their identities showed that the number of incidents of sexual assault might be as many as 26,000 a year, or about 70 a day, though the incidents werent reported.
The number is based on a Workplace and Gender Relations Survey that in 2012 included responses from 22,792 active-duty military personnel. This amounts to about 2 percent of the active-duty military strength.
Sexual assault includes unwanted touching of "genitalia or other sexually related areas of the body," the report says, in addition to rape or attempted sex. Roughly one-third of the incidents reported by those surveyed were cases of unwanted sexual touching, according to the survey.
On Capitol Hill, furious lawmakers said they were ready to toughen sexual assault laws, though Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., warned that it may take more than new legislation.