ALBANY, N.Y. (AP) — Charges that an Army sergeant secretly photographed and videotaped women at West Point are part of a military-wide pattern of sexual misconduct, U.S. Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand said Thursday.
The military has been rocked by a series of arrests and incidents of sexual misconduct. But the news from the venerable U.S. Military Academy — where the motto is "Duty. Honor. Country." — could be particularly embarrassing. The Army said Wednesday that a sergeant at West Point had been charged with secretly photographing and videotaping at least a dozen women at the academy, including in a bathroom.
The allegation comes the same month the Pentagon released a report estimating that as many as 26,000 military members may have been sexually assaulted last year and that thousands of victims are unwilling to come forward despite new oversight and assistance programs.
Gillibrand, D-N.Y., said Thursday the West Point charges illustrate a culture and reporting system that allows predators to remain in service. Service members afraid of retaliation or jeopardizing their careers often are reluctant to bring charges of sexual misconduct to their superiors, she said.
"This case is another case in a long line of incidents where we have clear evidence that the military did not understand how to handle this problem of sexual harassment and sexual misconduct," Gillibrand told The Associated Press in an interview. "Obviously, you're not having a level of accountability that is going to prevent these incidents and send a clear message that this criminal behavior is unacceptable."
Gillibrand, who is on the Senate Armed Services Committee, is pushing for a system in which sexual assault is reported outside the chain of command, directly to a military prosecutor.
West Point was named along with military officials in a lawsuit filed in April 2012 seeking the court's help in permanently changing attitudes about sexual assault at military academies. The lawsuit claims the nation's military academies "systemically and repeatedly ignore rampant sexual harassment." The suit said a 20-year-old Pennsylvania woman resigned from West Point after she became suicidal following her rape by a roommate's boyfriend, who remained in her unit after she reported she was attacked.
Army spokesman George Wright said West Point is working to prevent sexual harassment and assault and to cultivate cultural norms that prevent it in the future. He noted the allegations against Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon date to more than a year ago, when West Point was already training cadets, faculty and staff.
"The overwhelming majority of staff and faculty here are good, law-abiding and respectful people dedicated to service to their country," Wright said in an email. "The recent allegations have re-affirmed the importance of screening our staff and faculty to ensure we have decent, forthright people training and mentoring the future leaders of the Army."
Sue Fulton, a 1980 West Point graduate, said that sexual offenders are "a tiny minority that don't reflect the kind of people who sign up to serve. That said, I can't help but agree with Sen. Gillibrand that we need to change the culture."
"This kind of behavior goes against our army values and against the core values of West Point," she said.
Fulton is a member of the U.S. Military Academy's Board of Visitors, though she said she could not speak for the board. She also is a co-founder of Knights Out, an organization of gay West Point graduates.
Fulton said even the simple step of accepting more qualified female applicants to West Point could help. She said women represent 16 percent of cadets.
"We know that the culture could change in a positive way if women were more fairly represented," Fulton said.
McClendon, a combat engineer, was assigned to the academy from 2009 until recently. He was a member of the support staff at West Point, working with cadets. He has been transferred to Fort Drum.
A man who answered the telephone Thursday evening at a home believed to be McClendon's refused to answer any questions about him or say how he could be contacted, and it couldn't immediately be determined whether McClendon had a lawyer.
McClendon was charged May 14, though the charges became public this week as senior cadets prepare for commencement on Saturday. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel will speak to the graduates.
Associated Press reporter Rik Stevens contributed to this report.