By Jeff Mason
ANNAPOLIS, Maryland (Reuters) - President Barack Obama urged the future leaders of the U.S. military on Friday to stamp out sexual assault from their ranks, warning that a few individuals could undermine the strongest military in the world.
Addressing the graduating class of the U.S. Naval Academy, Obama used his commencement speech to take on a problem that has dogged the Pentagon and the White House in recent weeks.
"We must acknowledge that even here, even in our military, we've seen how the misconduct of some can have effects that ripple far and wide," Obama said, noting that one digital photo of misbehavior can go "viral" and put U.S. forces at risk.
"Those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong. That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes. Because they've got no place in the greatest military on Earth," he said.
Photos of U.S. soldiers humiliating and intimidating Iraqi detainees in the spring of 2004 drew global outrage and struck a sharp blow to America's reputation. The pictures had been taken by the soldiers themselves.
A spate of recent sex-related incidents has embarrassed the U.S. military and prompted members of Congress to introduce legislation designed to toughen up the Pentagon's handling of sex crimes.
A study released by the Defense Department two weeks ago estimated that reports of unwanted sexual contact in the military, from groping to rape, rose 37 percent in 2012, to about 26,000 cases from 19,000 the previous year.
Obama, in his remarks at a rain-soaked stadium, compared the sexual assault problem in the military to other U.S. institutions that have been damaged by bad behavior of a few people, including the financial industry and - without naming it explicitly - the Internal Revenue Service.
"Every day our civil servants do their jobs with professionalism, protecting our national security and delivering the services that so many Americans expect," Obama said.
"But, as we've seen again in recent days, it only takes the misconduct of a few to further erode the people's trust in their government. And that's unacceptable to me and I know it's unacceptable to you."
'RESTORE THE TRUST'
The IRS is at the center of a major Washington controversy for having given extra scrutiny to conservative groups.
That controversy, along with concerns about the Obama administration's pursuit of journalists in leak probes and its handling of the attacks in Benghazi, Libya, has created a headache for the president and his staff for days.
The sexual assault issue has been less of a public relations problem for the president, though he has been aggressive in ensuring it is addressed.
Obama appealed to the graduating class to treat each other with respect and to value the military as one of the most diverse institutions in the nation.
"You will lead this country. And if we want to restore the trust that the American people deserve to have in their institutions, all of us have to do our part," he said.
"We need your moral courage - the strength to do what's right, especially when it's unpopular. Because at the end of the day and at the end of your career, you want to look in the mirror and say with confidence and with pride, I fulfilled my oath; I did my duty; I stayed true to my values."
(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton; Editing by Eric Beech)