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.
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, 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."