By David Alexander
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - U.S. lawmakers voiced outrage on Tuesday that the officer in charge of the Air Force anti-sexual assault office was himself arrested on sexual battery charges and sharply questioned Air Force leaders about whether the military should keep jurisdiction over sex crimes.
Air Force Secretary Michael Donley and Chief of Staff General Mark Welsh told the Senate Armed Services Committee they were appalled by the weekend arrest, but they resisted calls from some lawmakers to remove prosecutions of sexual assault and rape from the military chain of command.
"Let me be clear. I am not satisfied with the progress to date (in dealing with sexual assaults)," said Senator Jim Inhofe, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee. "We must begin to eliminate this ... scourge."
The hearing came a day after Lieutenant Colonel Jeffrey Krusinski, 41, was removed from his job as head of the Air Force Sexual Assault Prevention and Response Office after his arrest on charges of grabbing a civilian woman by the breasts and buttocks in a suburban Virginia parking lot near the Pentagon.
The Air Force has faced a series of embarrassing sexual assault scandals over the past year. An investigation at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas, that began in 2011 has so far turned up 59 cases of sexual assault of military recruits by drill instructors.
President Barack Obama took a stand on the matter on Tuesday, saying his government would step up efforts to prosecute and dishonorably discharge perpetrators of sexual assault in the U.S. military.
"Bottom line is, I have no tolerance for this," he said. "I expect consequences."
At the hearing, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, citing Pentagon statistics showing a rise in sexual assaults over the past two years, criticized the Air Force leaders for insisting that commanders needed the power to determine if sexual assault cases go to trial in order to "maintain good order and discipline."
"Obviously this is not good order and discipline," she said.
The hearing also came as Pentagon officials prepared to release the department's annual report on sexual assault in the military.
The report, which is due to be released Tuesday afternoon, found that reported cases of sexual assault rose to 3,374 in 2012 from 3,192 the previous year, according to briefing slides released by members of Congress.
The Pentagon estimates that actual cases of unwanted sexual conduct are considerably higher. Estimated cases of unwanted sexual contact in 2012 were 26,000, compared with 19,000 in 2011, according to the briefing slides.
In another high-profile case, the top general in charge of an Air Force court martial at Aviano Air Base in Italy overturned the sexual assault conviction of a lieutenant colonel, threw out his one-year prison sentence and reinstated him to duty.
That case has prompted U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to recommend that Congress alter the military justice system to limit the ability of a military commander to throw out court-martial verdicts.
Senator Claire McCaskill told the Air Force leaders on Tuesday that dismissals lie the one at Aviano went the heart of the problem with the military chain of command handling sexual assault cases.
"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 to risking your entire career," she said.
How difficult, she asked, would it be "to have to salute the man who had been convicted by his peers of assaulting her."
(Reporting By David Alexander)