Associated Press

Posted on May 7, 2013 at 3:30 PM

c.2013 New York Times News Service

WASHINGTON — The problem of sexual assault in the military came into unsparing focus on Tuesday as the Pentagon released a study estimating that 26,000 people in the military were sexually assaulted in the 2012 fiscal year, up from 19,000 in the same period a year before.

The military recorded only 3,374 sexual assault reports last year, up from 3,192 in 2011, suggesting that many sexual assault victims continue not to report the crimes for fear of retribution or a lack of justice under the department’s system for prosecuting them.

The study, based on anonymous surveys, was released two days after an officer in charge of sexual assault prevention programs for the Air Force was arrested in Arlington, Va., and charged with sexual battery.

President Barack Obama, asked about the new numbers during a news conference Tuesday, angrily condemned the sexual assault problem in the military.

“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.”

The officer’s arrest in Arlington drew a strong condemnation from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., during a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing Tuesday.

“If the man in charge for the Air Force in preventing sexual assault was alleged to commit sexual assault this weekend,” Gillibrand said, then perhaps military officials were not capable of investigating and prosecuting the crimes.

Gillibrand, who nearly yelled as she addressed Michael B. Donley, the secretary of the Air Force, said that the continued pattern of sexual assault of women — and to a far lesser degree of men — was “undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world.”

At the same hearing, Gen. Mark A. Welsh III, the Air Force chief of staff, told the committee that he was “appalled” by the conduct and the arrest.

Gillibrand is seeking to have all sex offenders in the military discharged from service, and she would like to replace the current system of adjudicating sexual assault by taking it outside a victim’s chain of command. She is particularly focused on decisions, including one made recently by an Air Force general, to reverse guilty verdicts in sexual assault cases with little explanation.

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., who is also on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is holding up the nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan J. Helms to be vice commander of the Air Force’s Space Command. McCaskill said she wanted additional information about Helms’ decision to overturn a jury conviction in a sexual assault case last year.

McCaskill was also critical of the military’s current policies for policing and adjudicating sexual assault.

“It is hard for me to believe that somebody could be accused of that behavior with a complete stranger and not have anything in his file,” she said, referring to Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, the Air Force officer accused of sexual battery Sunday.

Police say the colonel approached a woman in a parking lot in Arlington near the Pentagon and grabbed her breasts and buttocks before she fended him off and called 911.