‘Scourge’ of sexual assault hurts military effectiveness, says Obama

President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and the service...
President Barack Obama speaks during a meeting with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Martin Dempsey, left, Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, and the service...
Jacquelyn Martin/AP Photo

As yet another military leader of a sexual assault prevention or response unit came under fire for treatment of women Thursday–the third in just two weeks–President Obama called the prevalence of sexual assault in the armed forces a “scourge” and charged Defense Secretary Hagel with weekly meetings aimed at toward stemming the crisis.

“Not only is it a crime, not only is it shameful and disgraceful, but it also is going to make and has made the military less effective than it can be,” Obama said in a meeting Thursday with Hagel, Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Martin Dempsey, and top military and national security personnel. “This is not a sideshow. This is not sort of a second-order problem that we’re experiencing. This goes to the heart and the core of who we are and how effective we’re going to be,” Obama said.

The president vowed to task the military’s top personnel with overseeing efforts to address the long-standing, but chronically under-reported crisis.

“We will not stop until we’ve seen this scourge, from what is the greatest military in the world, eliminated,” Obama said.

Monica Medina, a former Special Assistant to the Secretary of Defense under Secretaries Panetta and Hagel, told msnbc’s Andrea Mitchell Friday that a spotlight cast by Congress and the president on the issue could lead to reform.

‘The fact that sexual assault prevention officers within the military weren’t really taking it seriously is a sign that despite the tough talk at the top, it hadn’t permeated down through the ranks. So it’s time for that to really take hold now,” Medina said on Andrea Mitchell Reports Friday.

According to a Pentagon report, 3,374 instances of sexual assault were reported in the fiscal year that ended on September 30. The Pentagon estimates that as many as 26,000 military service members may have been sexually assaulted during that time, based on the reported number and anonymous surveys.

Congress, led chiefly by the women’s caucus, brought the issue to the forefront of discussion in recent weeks, holding hearings with military officials and sexual assault survivors. Legislation has been introduced in both the House and Senate to combat the prevalence of assault and to change the institutionalized reporting system.

New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand introduced a bill Thursday to remove the prosecution of these crimes from the military justice system. Under the Uniform Code of Military Justice system, officers in the chain of command have the ability to overturn a jury verdict, even on sexual assault cases.

Gillibrand called on Hagel, who has voiced support for no longer allowing commanding officers to overturn a verdict, to remove a commander’s ability to decide whether or not a case goes to trial.

“If you have 26,000 assaults a year and only 3,000 reported, you have a large structural problem,” Gillibrand, a Democrat,  said on Andrea Mitchell Reports Friday. ”We have to create a system whereby victims actually can receive justice to give confidence to other victims that they can come forward and hold their perpetrators accountable.”