WASHINGTON -- The nation's top defense leaders were summoned to the White House Thursday to talk about the military's escalating sexual assault crisis as the Pentagon's top general said women in uniform were losing confidence the problem will be solved.
President Barack Obama planned to meet Thursday afternoon with Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the civilian and military leaders of each service, and the military's senior enlisted advisers to discuss the issue, the Pentagon announced.
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. Changing the culture of a male-dominated, change-resistant military that for years has tolerated sexism and sexist behavior is proving to be a challenging task.
"We're losing the confidence of the women who serve that we can solve this problem," the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, said Wednesday.
"That's a crisis," Dempsey said in remarks during a flight from Europe to Washington that were reported by the American Forces Press Service, which is the Pentagon's internal news agency. Dempsey suggested that a deepening of the sexual assault problem may be linked to the strains of war.
"I tasked those around me to help me understand what a decade-plus of conflict may have done to the force," he said. "Instinctively, I knew it had to have some effect."
Dempsey added: "This is not to make excuses. We should be better than this. In fact, we have to be better than this."
The Pentagon had scheduled a briefing for journalists Thursday with Hagel and Dempsey, but after the White House meeting was announced, they said the Pentagon news conference was being postponed until Friday.
As new sexual assault allegations emerged this week involving an Army soldier who was assigned to prevent such crimes -- the second military member facing similar accusations -- the Pentagon said Hagel is working on a written directive to spell out steps aimed at resolving the escalating problem.
But Obama, fuming at a news conference last week, warned that he wanted swift and sure action, not "just more speeches or awareness programs or training." Sexual offenders need to be "prosecuted, stripped of their position, court-martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period," he said.
"The president has made very clear his expectations on this issue," said Pentagon press secretary George Little, adding that Hagel told Obama on Tuesday about an Army sergeant first class at Fort Hood, Texas, who faces allegations of sexual misconduct. The case involves the soldier's activities with three women, including an allegation that he may have arranged for one of them to have sex for money, according to a defense official.
Those allegations come on the heels of a Pentagon report last week that 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.
But experts warn that stemming an increase in assaults will require concrete changes, both in law and in military culture.
"There is not a quick fix," said Anu Bhagwati, former Marine captain and executive director of the Service Women's Action Network. "The military can't train its way out of this problem."
She said that changing the prosecution system is critical but that victims also have to be convinced they won't be punished if they come forward. Changing the culture in the military to foster greater respect, she said, may require using outside groups and advocates to deal with assault cases so that victims don't feel intimidated by having to go to senior officers with their assault allegations.
According to Little, Hagel is considering changes to the Uniform Code of Military Justice that would prevent commanders from reversing sexual assault convictions, along with other efforts to improve training, assist victims and strengthen discipline.
Hagel has also ordered the retraining, recertifying and rescreening of all sexual assault prevention and response personnel as well as military recruiters, who also have been accused in recent sexual misconduct cases.
"He is going to spare no effort to address the problem," Little said, adding that additional training is "foundational" to any credible effort against sexual assault. He said Hagel is "open to any and all" ideas about how to improve training, and he said this will be just one element in a broader effort to fight the problem.
On Capitol Hill, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., planned to introduce legislation Thursday taking top commanders out of the process of deciding whether a sexual misconduct case goes to trial. For sexual offenses with authorized sentences of more than one year in confinement -- akin to felonies in the civilian judicial system -- that decision would rest instead with officers at ranks as low as colonel who are seasoned trial counsels with prosecutorial experience.
"`What we need to do is change the system so victims know that they can receive justice," Gillibrand said Thursday on CBS "This Morning."
And, Sens. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo., and Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., introduced legislation Wednesday to require the Pentagon to establish strict new criteria for service members who can serve in sexual assault prevention programs throughout the military.
In the latest case, the Texas sergeant, whose name has not been made public, was assigned as a coordinator of a battalion-level sexual assault prevention program at Fort Hood. He has been suspended from all duties but has not been charged with any crime.
A defense official in Washington said it was not yet clear if one of the three women was forced into prostitution, adding that the sergeant is being investigated for allegedly sexually assaulting one of the other two women. The allegations involving the third woman were not known.
Another U.S. official said that the sergeant had served in both the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and that there were no obvious problems with his military record on an initial review.
Both officials spoke only on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
The soldier was being investigated by the Army Criminal Investigation Command. No charges had been filed, but officials say they expect them fairly soon.
Just last week, an Air Force officer who headed a sexual assault prevention office was himself arrested on charges of groping a woman in a Northern Virginia parking lot.
Little said Hagel was angry and disappointed at "these troubling allegations and the breakdown in discipline and standards they imply." He said Hagel had met with Army Secretary John McHugh and ordered him to "fully investigate this matter rapidly, to discover the extent of these allegations and to ensure that all of those who might be involved are dealt with appropriately."
In the recent Pentagon report, officials said that of the estimated 26,000 military members who may have been sexually assaulted last year, fewer than 3,400 reported the incidents. Nearly 800 of those simply sought help and declined to file formal complaints against their alleged attackers.