WATCH: Defense Secretary Austin ‘not comfortable’ with lack of action against sexual assault, says spokesperson

Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin is “not comfortable” with efforts so far to confront sexual assault or harassment in the military, Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby told reporters during a news briefing on Thursday.

Watch the briefing in the player above.

Kirby was speaking to reporters following a Pentagon review of sexual assault, harassment and similar behaviors across 20 bases in Europe and the United States.

“The secretary is not comfortable that we haven’t done as good a job on prevention as we should have done and what he really appreciated about this report was how candid it was about how much more work we have to do,” Kirby said.

Kirby said the review had found 20,000 “incidents” in 2020 and that number was “just way too high”. He added that it would be necessary for rules established by the Pentagon to combat sexual assault and harassment to filter down the ranks and across bases.

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“You can have the best prevention program at the corporate level, here at the headquarters level, but unless it’s being acted on and executed and locally adopted then it’s no better than the paper it’s written on,” Kirby said.

The review found that military bases with a high risk for sexual assault, harassment and other harmful behaviors often have leaders who don’t understand violence prevention, don’t make it a priority and focus more on their mission than on their people.

The review studied 20 bases in the United States and Europe, including 18 with some of the more severe problems identified in command climate surveys. It found that the failures were worse in a number of bases in Germany and Spain where key leaders and resources weren’t on site. Senior defense officials described the report to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity to discuss the findings before the review was publicly released.

At Naval Station Rota in Spain, for example, officials said the military mission requirements “were prioritized above and at the expense of the sailors’ well-being.” They said sailors reported bullying, mental health issues, sexual harassment and relationship problems, but often could not seek help due to their mission requirements.

In one location, officials said, they found that young enlisted men were taking steps to help their female peers stay safe by keeping them away from more senior leaders who were harassing them.

Austin ordered the report as part of his effort to strengthen sexual assault and harassment prevention across the forces, identify what programs work and ensure high-risk bases get attention quickly. Austin approved the report, and in a memo obtained by the AP, said it will help the department tailor improvements for bases where needs may vary.

“While we have made progress, we must do more to strengthen the integrated capabilities we have on the ground to prevent sexual assault, harassment, suicide, domestic abuse and other harmful behaviors,” he said.

The report comes nearly two years after Army Spc. Vanessa Guillén went missing from Fort Hood, Texas, and her remains were found two months later. Guillen was killed by a soldier, who her family says sexually harassed her, and who killed himself as police sought to arrest him.

Her death and a number of other crimes, murders and suicides led to heightened scrutiny on assaults and other violence in the military, and to a series of reviews. An independent panel appointed by Austin last year made more than 80 recommendations, including specific changes to improve accountability of leadership, command climate and culture, and victim care and support.