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At Naval Academy commencement, Obama condemns military sexual assaults

May 24, 2013|By Kathleen Hennessey

WASHINGTON -- President Obama condemned sexual misconduct in the military and told Naval Academy graduates to try to restore Americans’ faith in institutions in a commencement speech that hinted at the scandals swirling around the president.

“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,” Obama said Friday in a speech at the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. “And that's unacceptable to me, and I know it's unacceptable to you.”

Obama’s remarks didn’t explicitly reference the controversy over the Internal Revenue Service targeting of conservative groups, one of three controversies that consumed the news in recent weeks. But the president seemed to have the shortcomings of government bureaucrats on his mind. While he noted that every day “civil servants do their jobs with professionalism,” he also added that “institutions do not fail in a vacuum.”

“Institutions are made up of people, individuals. And we’ve seen how the actions of a few can undermine the integrity of those institutions,” he told the group in the rainy ceremony.

The president was more direct in discussing sexual assault in the military, an issue that shot to prominence after a string of new reports of misconduct and the release of a Pentagon survey that found a large number of unreported incidents among the ranks. The Pentagon data estimated that 26,000 service members were sexually assaulted in unreported incidents last year, a 35% increase from 2010.

Obama has said he will work with military leaders to put an end to the crimes. On Friday, he called on the graduates to following their “inner compass” in choosing between right and wrong. And he tried to underscore the seriousness of the matter by comparing the sexual misconduct cases to the battlefield photos that show “troops falling short on their standards” and “endanger our forces and undermine out efforts to achieve security and peace.”

“Likewise, those who commit sexual assault are not only committing a crime, they threaten the trust and discipline that makes our military strong,” he said. “That's why we have to be determined to stop these crimes because they've got no place in the greatest military on Earth.”

Obama’s speech came a day after the president announced a new set of policies aimed at restricting the use of drones and marked a new phase in the war against al Qaeda. He repeated his remarks Friday, saying that although the U.S. was moving “beyond deploying large, ground armies abroad, we still need to conduct precise, targeted strikes against terrorists before they kill our citizens.”

The president made promises to “maintain our military superiority” through this transition even in the face of budget cutting in Washington, which he blamed on Congress. He dismissed across-the-board budget cuts imposed this year as “foolish” and a threat to military readiness and promised to try to reverse them. The cuts have been a particular blow to military contractors.

“I’ll keep fighting for the capabilities and technologies you need to prevail, and a shipbuilding plan that puts us on track to achieve a 300-ship fleet, with capabilities that exceed the power of the next dozen navies combined,” he said.

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kathleen.hennessey@latimes.com

Twitter: @khennessy

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