Senator demands IG inspection into Coast Guard’s failure to respond to sex assault claims at academy
Jul 13, 2023, 11:16 AM
(David M. Santos/U.S. Coast Guard/FILE via CNN)
(CNN) — The chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee called for an inspector general investigation into the U.S. Coast Guard in the wake of revelations of systemic mishandling of sexual assault allegations at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
CNN recently revealed that Coast Guard leadership for years kept confidential the findings of a probe that revealed a history of rapes, assaults and other serious misconduct at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy from the late 1980s to 2006 that officials ignored or even covered up. A 2019 draft report stemming from the probe, exclusively reviewed by CNN, concluded academy leadership had been more concerned about reputation than victims’ wellbeing.
Despite findings of wrongdoing, the probe was quietly closed. The Coast Guard only briefed members of Congress in June about the secret investigation after inquiries from CNN.
“It is heartbreaking, maddening, frustrating and untolerable where we are today with this sexual abuse and assault within the Coast Guard. We cannot tolerate the fact that the Coast Guard did not notify us this,” Sen. Maria Cantwell, chair of the Senate Commerce Committee said at a subcomittee hearing Thursday. “We cannot have the media be the policeman on the beat.”
While Thursday’s pre-scheduled hearing was technically intended to focus on the agency’s budget, senators on both sides of the aisle repeatedly chastised the agency for what they described as a devastating coverup by the agency of nearly two decades of mishandling sexual assault reports made to academy leaders. “This is exactly the type of gross mismanagement congressional oversight is designed to protect against,” said Sen. Dan Sullivan, a Republican from Alaska.
The head of the U.S. Coast Guard, Commandant Linda Fagan, told senators that she didn’t know why the Coast Guard did not previously disclose the probe into sexual assaults at the academy to Congress.
Fagan said she only learned of the “totality” of the so-called Fouled Anchor probe when CNN inquired about the issue this past spring, though she had heard of it because she had previously taken steps to remove a commanding officer caught up in the investigation.
“We failed the committee when we did not disclose in 2020,” Fagan said.
Fagan faulted prior leaders within her agency for failing to properly handle sexual assault complaints at the academy. She described a “pattern of failure” to address those reports and said there was a “lack of clarity of leadership with regard to how those reports needed to be handled.”
“It started as legacy sexual assaults that were mishandled at the Coast Guard Academy,” Fagan said, “but it is clear to me that we’ve got a culture in areas that is permissive and allows sexual assaults, harassment, bullying, retaliation, that’s inconsistent with our core values. It is not the workforce that that I want or expect, and we have got work to do,” Fagan said.
When Cantwell followed up on that comment, Fagan suggested the culture has improved since the 1980s and clarified, saying, “we do not have a culture of assault in the Coast Guard… there was a legacy of mishandling of reports of sexual assault at the Coast Guard Academy in the 80s.”
On Thursday, Fagan announced the launch of an “accountability and transparency” review of her agency in the wake of revelations of systemic mishandling of sexual assault allegations at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy.
Dubbed Operation Fouled Anchor, the investigation was triggered in 2014 when an academy graduate reported that her allegation of rape from years earlier had never been investigated. When it concluded around five years later, investigators had ultimately identified more than 60 substantiated incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment committed by academy cadets or otherwise that occurred at the academy from the late 1980s to 2006, according to recent briefings to Congress.
Most alleged perpetrators were not criminally investigated at the time, according to the investigation, with punishments as minor as extra homework or lowered class standings if they happened at all. As a result, some of the accused ascended to top roles at the Coast Guard and other military agencies. In contrast, many alleged victims left the academy after reporting their assaults, while their mental health, personal relationships and careers often faced devastating impacts.
“I cannot begin to describe how unlivable some months and years of my life have been,” one woman, who was interviewed during Fouled Anchor about her alleged rape, told CNN. “In my life, there has been severe damages and notable sacrifices to my quality of life and my career that I may never fully recover and require consistent repair and care.”
Senators slammed the Coast Guard’s handling of the investigation, saying that it served to traumatize victims yet again.
“Coming forward to report sexual harassment or assault takes courage and bravery,” said Sen. Tammy Baldwin, a Wisconsin Democrat and chairwoman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s Subcommittee on Oceans, Fisheries, Climate Change and Manufacturing, which oversees the Coast Guard. “When those allegations are swept under the rug, it’s insulting, retraumatizing and further disservice to the victims.”
Fagan told the senators that the Coast Guard has made “an incredible amount of progress” in how sexual assaults are investigated and prosecuted. But agency sexual assault reports reviewed by CNN show that even today, criminal prosecution of academy assaults remains rare.
A CNN investigation earlier this year also showed that the Coast Guard has continued to struggle to hold suspected sexual predators accountable in the commercial shipping industry, which Baldwin said, further raises “serious questions about the Coast Guard’s ability and, frankly, willpower to comply with laws and demand accountability.”
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