‘A deep moral rot’: Coast Guard leader grilled by senators at hearing on sexual assault cover-up

Jun 11, 2024, 9:42 PM

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan testified in front of senators Tuesday. (Andrew Harnik/Gett...

Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan testified in front of senators Tuesday. (Andrew Harnik/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

(Andrew Harnik/Getty Images via CNN Newsource)

CNN — Senators blasted the head of the US Coast Guard at a contentious hearing on Tuesday, saying she has fostered a “culture of concealment,” withheld critical information from congressional investigators and failed to hold leaders and perpetrators accountable for serious misconduct.

“Our investigation has shown a deep moral rot within the Coast Guard now,” said Sen. Richard Blumenthal, chair of the Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which has been looking into the Coast Guard’s past mishandling of sexual assault cases. “One that prioritizes cronyism over accountability, silence over survivors.”

Blumenthal and other lawmakers from the subcommittee told Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan that their investigation has found that sexual assault remains a “persistent and unacceptably prevalent” issue across the service, despite her initial assurances that it was a problem of the past.

Nearly 40 whistleblowers have come forward to the subcommittee in recent months, lawmakers said. At the hearing, Fagan was questioned about what specific steps she was taking to ensure those who commit serious misconduct, as well as those who cover up their crimes, are removed from the service.

“Are you aware that there are more survivors who leave the Coast Guard than perpetrators?” asked Blumenthal, a Democrat from Connecticut, where the Coast Guard Academy is based. “This problem is not one of the past. It is real and present … and the evidence is not in my voice, it is the voices and faces of the whistleblowers … they are in my view heroes in this story.”

The hearing was sparked by CNN’s reporting on the results of a secret investigation — dubbed Operation Fouled Anchor, which was quietly closed and hidden from Congress and the public despite substantiating dozens of sexual assaults that had previously been mishandled at the Coast Guard’s prestigious academy. At a previous hearing led by the same subcommittee, four sexual assault victims testified about how they were silenced, retaliated against and left battling severe mental trauma while alleged perpetrators continued to thrive within the service.

“We are taking action, the work is not done … we have not waited,” Fagan said, repeatedly pledging to change the culture but saying she needs more time and resources to do so. “I want to stop creating victims, but for the victims that we do have in the organization, I am 100% committed to fully supporting them and their needs.”

Fagan had previously said she only learned of the “totality” of the so-called Fouled Anchor probe when CNN inquired about the issue, though she had heard of it because she had previously taken steps to remove a commanding officer caught up in the investigation.

When pressed by senators Tuesday on how much she had known about the investigation prior to becoming commandant in 2021, she acknowledged that she had “formally” learned about it when the agency’s leadership council was briefed in 2018,and she said that “when we closed it out in 2020, there was conversation around whether to disclose or not.”

Fagan refused to say whether she believed her predecessor, Admiral Karl Schultz, was behind the ultimate decision to keep the findings of Fouled Anchor from Congress after the probe concluded. She said she did not have “any direct evidence of misconduct” surrounding this decision, even though minutes earlier senators had displayed a giant poster of a handwritten list made by Schultz’s second in command with “pros” and “cons” about whether to be transparent with lawmakers and the public about the probe. Schultz previously declined to comment to CNN about Fouled Anchor.

The hearing Tuesday came as Fagan was already facing immense pressure, as new controversies and increased congressional scrutiny have shined a light on how sexual assault is continuing to plague the agency. This includes explosive allegations from the academy’s longtime head of sexual assault prevention, Shannon Norenberg, who recently announced her resignation and said top leaders had directed her to lie to sexual assault victims and Congress, making her an unwitting accomplice in the Fouled Anchor coverup.

Several lawmakers seized on Norenberg’s allegations, specifically that she had been barred from providing survivors with key paperwork that would help them access veteran’s benefits available to sexual assault survivors. Fagan said she couldn’t speak about specifics of that allegation, as well as other issues raised by the senators, because of an open Inspector General investigation. That prompted Blumenthal to criticize her for using the investigation as a shield, eliciting applause from the audience.

“You’re the leader, these decisions are yours,” said Blumenthal.

Fagan said she hadn’t actually read Norenberg’s full statement, just the CNN article about it.

Senators also focused on an email alleging a recent assault coverup that went viral after being deleted from Coast Guard servers and a leaked internal memo showing that Coast Guard officials recently worried that publishing testimonials from assault survivors “could continue to exacerbate the narrative … that the Coast Guard is in a sexual assault crisis now.” Sen. Maggie Hassan, a Democrat from New Hampshire, argued that the “reluctance” to release the videos “indicates a real failure of leadership” and lack of understanding of the agency’s current sexual assault problem.

Throughout the hearing, lawmakers pressed Fagan on what they described as a lack of transparency and cooperation with their investigation.

“The only way you can change the culture, the only way this can be fixed … is with truth, transparency and accountability,” said Sen. Ron Johnson, a Republican from Wisconsin and Ranking Member of the subcommittee, adding that he thinks subpoenas will be necessary. Johnson flipped through page after page of records produced by the Coast Guard that were almost entirely redacted.

A group of bipartisan lawmakers from the House Oversight committee, who were not part of the hearing but have their own investigation underway into the agency’s handling of a variety of misconduct, including sexual assault, racism and hazing, joined the voices of criticism. They sent a letter to Fagan on Tuesday saying that the Coast Guard has provided fewer than 1% of records identified as potentially responsive to the requests to date.

They also said they have heard from whistleblowers who “revealed additional cultural deficiencies and alleged incompetence and misconduct by current and former leaders,” who whistleblowers say may have “willfully concealed evidence relevant to criminal investigations” and “misrepresented material facts to Coast Guard Investigative Service (CGIS) investigators to conceal the depth of the culture of misconduct and the identities of other potential suspects.”

At Tuesday’s hearing, Fagan said the Coast Guard has been fully cooperating with the subcommittee’s investigation. But senators said it appeared that the records it deemed “sensitive” and refused to provide were more likely withheld because of fear of further public embarrassment.

“What’s required of the Coast Guard at this moment is an unsparing commitment to truth-telling, following the facts and the evidence wherever they lead, even if they are embarrassing to former members of the Coast Guard or present members,” said Blumenthal.

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‘A deep moral rot’: Coast Guard leader grilled by senators at hearing on sexual assault cover-up