McCaskill blocks promotion amid furor over military sexual assaults

Sen. Claire McCaskill stepped up her drive to curb sexual assaults in the military on Tuesday, a day in which the Pentagon admitted to a worsening problem and President Barack Obama threatened attackers with dishonorable discharge.

The Missouri senator’s office acknowledged that she is blocking the Obama administration’s nomination of Lt. Gen. Susan Helms, a former astronaut, to become commander of the Air Force’s Space Command.

McCaskill said she is investigating Helms’ dismissal last year of an Air Force captain’s conviction for aggravated sexual assault.

Since March, McCaskill, a Democrat, has been pursuing an issue that catapulted to Washington’s front burner this week when the Air Force official in charge of reining in a sexual assault epidemic was himself charged with sexual battery.

Pentagon officials expressed outrage at the alleged actions of Lt. Col. Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, who was removed from duty after his arrest for allegedly grabbing the breasts and buttocks of a woman in a Virginia parking lot early Sunday after a night of drinking.

Images of Krusinski’s scratched face provided a backdrop to the release Tuesday of a Pentagon report offering further evidence of a vexing problem.

The report estimated that 26,000 people in the military were sexually assaulted last year, an increase of 7,000 from 2011 estimates. That translates to more than 70 sexual assaults daily at U.S. military installations around the world.

The Pentagon based its estimates on anonymous surveys and said just 3,374 cases were reported last year. The figures suggest widespread unwillingness of victims to come forth out of fear of reprisal.

Obama, asked about the spiraling problem during a news conference, said he’d been on the phone with the Pentagon about the arrest. The president spoke forcefully about sexual assault and said attackers were “betraying the uniform that they are wearing.”

“The bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this,” Obama 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.”

Speaking to victims, Obama said: “I want them to hear directly from their commander-in-chief that I’ve got their backs.”

Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel also spoke bluntly later when he announced a series of initiatives designed to promote what he called “a climate of dignity and respect.”

Hagel said he was “outraged and disgusted” by the charges against Krusinski and asserted that the Pentagon “may be nearing a stage where the frequency of this crime and the perception that there is tolerance of it could very well undermine our ability to effectively carry out the mission and to recruit and retrain good people.”

Speaking to reporters, he added: “We know we’ve got big problems. We know that.”

In Congress, McCaskill grilled Air Force officials at a Senate hearing, and two of her female colleagues, Sens. Patty Murray, D-Wash., and Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., introduced bipartisan legislation that would set up the office of special victims counsel in the service branches.

Last month, McCaskill, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, helped persuade the Pentagon to revamp its Uniform Code of Military Justice when she took up the case of an Air Force general overturning a military jury’s conviction of a fellow F-16 pilot charged with sexual assault.

Now, McCaskill is examining the role played by Helms, who overturned the conviction of a Vandenberg Air Force Base captain without interviewing the victim.

A spokesman for McCaskill said she is trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting with Helms.

While she digs into the case, McCaskill is invoking a prerogative of Senate members by holding up the confirmation of Helms to head the Air Force space office.

Helms was a crew member on the space shuttle Endeavour in the early 1990s and the military’s first woman in space.

“In both instances,” McCaskill said of the overturned convictions, “you had the victim testifying to one set of facts and the accused testifying to another. In both instances, juries selected by those generals said they believed the victim. And in both instances, the generals said no, no, we believe the member of the military.”

Speaking to top Air Force officials, she added: “That is the crux of the problem here. Because if a victim does not believe that the system is capable of believing her, there’s no point in risking your entire career.”

McCaskill questioned whether the Air Force had adequately vetted Krusinski before assigning him to a sensitive position.

“The accusation is that he was drunk and sexually attacked a complete stranger in a parking lot. It is hard for me to believe that he would be accused of that behavior by a complete stranger and not have anything in his files that would indicate a problem in that regard,” she said.

During the hearing, Air Force Secretary Michael Donley asserted that the pattern of assaults in the service branches is “undermining the credibility of the greatest military force in the world.”