By Barbara Starr, Greg Seaby and Ashley Fantz
(CNN) — President Barack Obama said on Tuesday that he has “no tolerance” for sexual assault in the military and that the Pentagon must push harder to reduce that type of conduct.
Obama’s remarks at the White House were in response to new Pentagon statistics showing an increase in reports of sex assaults as well as allegations of sexual battery against an Air Force officer who led a sex assault prevention unit.
Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, was arrested early Sunday in Arlington, Virginia, just outside Washington, accused of grabbing a woman’s breasts and buttocks, Arlington County police said.
According to the police log posted on the Arlington County web site, the woman fought off a “drunken” assailant in a parking lot about 12:35 a.m. when he tried to grab her again before she called authorities.
The woman did not know her attacker, Arlington County police spokesman Dustin Sternbeck said.
Krusinski has been removed from duty, an Air Force official said Monday. The official declined to be named, citing an ongoing law enforcement matter.
Krusinski was held on $5,000 bond.
In February Krusinski was placed in charge of a branch of the Air Force’s Sexual Assault Prevention and Response program, and he oversaw a five-person office, the Air Force official said.
Air Force brass face questions
Meanwhile on Tuesday, top Air Force officials faced questions at a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing about the larger issue of sexual assault and about the accused officer.
Democratic Sen. Claire McCaskill of Missouri asked Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Mark Welsh and Air Force Secretary Michael Donley what qualified Krusinski for the job in the sex assault prevention program.
Krusinski is a personnel officer by training and has spent the last two and a half year working on Air Force staff in policy, Welsh replied.
“He was a force support squadron commander before coming to the Pentagon. Force support squadron is the squadron in which things like sexual assault coordination councils, etcetera, work in our active Air Force units,” Welsh explained. “He’s been around the business his entire career as a personnel officer.”
Democratic Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York had strong words.
“If the man in charge for the Air Force in preventing sexual assault is being alleged to have committed a sexual assault this weekend obviously there’s a failing in training and understanding of what sexual assault is and how corrosive and damaging it is to good order and discipline and how it is undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world!” she said. “This is not good enough!”
McCaskill pressed Donley and Welsh.
“Did you look at his file for any kind of problems related — I mean, clearly, the accusation is that he was drunk and sexually attacked a complete stranger in a parking lot,” McCaskill said. “It is hard for me to believe that someone would be accused of that behavior by a complete stranger and not have anything in their file that would indicate a problem in that regard.
“Have you looked at his file and determined that his file was absolutely pristine?” the senator asked.
“Senator, I looked at his officer record of performance which is all I could access last night. I talked to his current supervisor,” Welsh answered. “I haven’t talked to people who knew him or supervised him in the past. There is no indication in his professional record of performance or his current work place that there’s any type of a problem like this.”
Earlier Tuesday, Welsh said sexual assault response efforts are critically important to the Air Force and the branch “would not quit working this problem.”
He and Donley were “appalled” by the allegations against Krusinski, they said.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel discussed Krusinski’s arrest with Donley on Monday, according to the Pentagon.
Hagel has expressed disgust over the allegations.
“We need cultural change where every service member is treated with dignity and respect,” he told reporters at a briefing on Tuesday. “Where all allegations of inappropriate behavior are treated with seriousness … and where offenders know that they will be held accountable by strong and effective systems of justice.”
An increase in sexual assault reports
Hagel was speaking, in part, about Defense Department figures released on Tuesday that showed reported sexual assaults involving service members as either a victim or offender increased by about 6% from 2011 to 2012. There were 3,192 assaults reported in fiscal year 2011 and 3,374 reported in fiscal year 2012, which ran from October 1 to September 30.
Officials have said it is not clear whether that indicates an actual increase in attacks or if the increase is the result of more victims becoming comfortable in reporting a crime that’s often not reported.
“I would say that the changes in the numbers that we’re seeing is a matter of some debate,” Donley testified Tuesday. “And we’re not really sure whether the numbers of increasing reporting reflect higher incidents or they reflect more confidence in the system…”
Additional Defense Department data from 2010 to 2012 found that the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact increased for active duty women and remained unchanged for active duty men, and men and women in the reserves.
For active duty women, anonymous survey results showed that the prevalence of unwanted sexual contact — not actual complaints — jumped by about a third from an estimated 4.4 percent to an estimated 6.1 percent or 26,000 over the two-year period. The figure was extrapolated from a 24 percent response rate to 108,000 surveys.
On Tuesday, lawmakers reiterated that it’s crucial that service members feel they can come forward when they’ve been violated.
The Defense Department has stepped up efforts to hold perpetrators accountable, establishing a special victims unit to handle cases, working to improve tracking of reports and speeding transfers for troops who report a sexual assault by a member of their unit.
But Obama stressed that there must be a harder push in the military to reduce sexual assaults involving service members.
“I don’t want more speeches or awareness programs or training but … if we find out somebody is engaging in this stuff, they are going to be held accountable,” Obama said. “Prosecuted, stripped of their positions, court martialed, fired, dishonorably discharged. Period. It is not acceptable.”
Assaults about “power and control”
In March, members of the military who were sexually assaulted gave dramatic and anguishing testimony to congressional lawmakers.
A former Army specialist described being raped in two different instances while she was in the service and how she felt that the military’s chain of command was failing at consistently prosecuting and convicting offenders.
At that hearing, high-ranking members of each branch assured lawmakers that they were working hard to end sexual assault in the armed forces.
Lt. Gen. Richard C. Harding, an Air Force JAG told lawmakers that the branch started a program in January that provides airmen who report being victimized with an attorney to represent them.
The attorneys operate independently of the prosecution’s chain of command, he said.
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