Washington • A sergeant first class on the staff of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point has been accused of videotaping female cadets without their consent, sometimes when they were undressed in the bathroom or the shower, according to Army officials.
The Army is contacting about a dozen women to alert them that their privacy may have been violated by the suspect, identified as Sgt. 1st Class Michael McClendon, and to offer support or counseling as required, officials said.
The allegations at West Point, the nation’s oldest and most prestigious military academy, come in the midst of growing outrage in Congress, at the Pentagon and from President Barack Obama over reports of sexual harassment and assault in the armed forces. They also come as the Army has begun integrating women into a number of combat positions, bringing added demands for fair and equal treatment of those in uniform.
The revelations are especially startling at West Point, which has had problems with sexual assault but also has many progressive faculty members and prides itself on having an environment of discipline and respect. Women have been enrolled at the two-century-old institution, on a commanding bank of the Hudson River in upstate New York, for nearly 40 years.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, who is to deliver the commencement address at West Point on Saturday, was briefed on the case Wednesday morning. Pentagon officials described him as “concerned and disturbed” by the allegations.
McClendon, of Blakely, Ga., faces charges under four articles of the Uniform Code of Military Justice, for indecent acts, dereliction in the performance of duty, cruelty and maltreatment, and actions prejudicial to good order and discipline. McClendon, who had been assigned to the academy since 2009, was transferred to Fort Drum, N.Y., before charges were filed May 14, Army officials said.
During his tenure at West Point, McClendon served as a tactical noncommissioned officer, a position described in academy personnel documents as a staff adviser “responsible for the health, welfare and discipline” of a company of 125 cadets. The person in the position is expected to “assist each cadet in balancing and integrating the requirements of physical, military, academic and moral-ethical programs.”
The student body at West Point numbers about 4,500 cadets. Slightly more than 15 percent are female, and senior Army officials pledged immediate action to try to regain their trust.
“The Army is committed to ensuring the safety and welfare of our cadets at the Military Academy at West Point - as well as all soldiers throughout our Army,” Gen. John F. Campbell, the Army vice chief of staff, said Wednesday. “Once notified of the violation, a full investigation was launched, followed by swift action to correct the problem. Our cadets must be confident that issues such as these are handled quickly and decisively, and that our system will hold those responsible accountable.”
Officials said some of the videos were taken in the showers or the bathrooms, and some elsewhere on campus. Documents in the case indicate that in some instances McClendon entered women’s bathroom and shower areas without knocking.
The number of sexual assaults reported at the military’s service academies has been steadily rising in recent years. In the 2011-12 academic year, there were 80 reports of sexual assault, compared with 65 in 2010-11 and 25 in 2008-09. The Defense Department is required by Congress to track sexual assault reports at the military academies.
The Army made no announcement of the charges against McClendon, but it provided details after The New York Times learned of the inquiry from people with ties to West Point who said they were alarmed by the allegations and wanted to learn of the academy’s plans to investigate and prevent future violations.
George Wright, an Army spokesman, said the service and West Point would “rebuild trust” through their response. He said the Army was committed to “providing the full range of support to those whose privacy was violated,” as well as “keeping them updated on the case.”
“The Army will ensure the military justice system works through to its proper conclusion,” Wright said.
According to military service records, McClendon joined the Army in 1990 and trained as a combat engineer. He deployed to Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and from 2007 to 2009, and was awarded a Bronze Star.
In recent weeks, allegations of sexual harassment and assault against women in the military have prompted vows from the Pentagon’s highest officials that they will confront the problem.
“It is time we take on the fight against sexual assault and sexual harassment as our primary mission,” Gen. Ray Odierno, the Army chief of staff, wrote in a message to all of his service personnel last week. “It is up to every one of us, civilian and soldier, general officer to private, to solve this problem within our ranks.”
These acts, Odierno wrote, “”violate everything our Army stands for.”
“They are contrary to our Army values,” he added, “and they must not be tolerated.”
Last week Obama summoned the Pentagon’s senior leaders to the White House, telling them that the levels of sexual assault across the armed services were a disgrace that undermined the trust essential for the military to carry out its mission.
At the White House on Wednesday, Jay Carney, Obama’s press secretary, said the president had “zero tolerance for sexual assault in the military.”
“Those who participate in it dishonor the uniform they wear,” Carney said, and “those who are victims of it and who wear the uniform should know that the commander in chief has their backs.”