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Congress criticizes cover-up of Coast Guard Academy sex assault claims

Admiral Linda Fagan, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, testifying in front of Congress on July 13, 2023.
Admiral Linda Fagan, the Commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, testified in Congress on July 13, 2023, about a six-year investigation into sexual assault at the U.S. Coast Guard academy, which was never shared with federal lawmakers.

The U.S. Coast Guard is under fire after it was revealed late last month that sexual assault allegations at its service academy in New London went unreported or ignored for years and that the leaders of the military branch neglected to disclose a six-year investigation into those failures.

The investigation, known as “Operation Fouled Anchor,” found that between the late 1980s and 2006, dozens of substantiated incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment took place at the Academy, and that many of those cases were not handled properly.

That news, and the Coast Guard’s decision to bury the report, is now fueling a swift response from federal lawmakers, including members of Connecticut’s Congressional delegation, who are demanding more accountability from the Coast Guard and further investigations into the branch’s decision to withhold information from Congress.

Adm. Linda Fagan appeared before a congressional panel on Thursday, publicly addressing for the first time the allegations, the Coast Guard’s failure to report them and how leadership plans to rectify the lack of transparency.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairwoman Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said she is calling for an inspector general investigation into why “Fouled Anchor” went undisclosed since it wrapped up in 2020 and why it was largely hidden from current leadership, including Fagan, who wasconfirmed as the new Coast Guard Commandant last year.

“I’m going to ask for an IG investigation so we can get to the bottom of all the problems that have occurred here,” Cantwell said at the hearing. “We’re going to get [a] third party involved here to make sure we have the oversight, the evaluation, and the Congress has transparency into the situation.”

During her testimony, Fagan admitted the Coast Guard “failed” to share the report with Congress, but she said she did not fully understand why the investigation remained hidden for several years after its completion. Fagan, who took the helm in June 2022, said she knew of the investigation generally but that she only became aware of the full scope of the investigation when CNN started asking questions for a story that eventually brought those allegations and investigation to light two weeks ago.

“I knew generally of Fouled Anchor. I needed to move to temporarily relieve a commanding officer while I was the [Pacific Area] commander. It was one instance and I knew it was part of a greater body of work, but I did not know the full extent,” Fagan said. “When I found out about the totality of the Fouled Anchor investigation, I directed that we move to begin notifying.”

Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy participate in a week-long training course.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Cory Mendenhall / USCG Academy
Cadets at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy participate in a week-long training course.

The Coast Guard’s failure to disclose the six-year investigation comes more than two decades after sexual assault and harassment in U.S. military academies first captured national attention.

The issue first took on prominence in 2003 when a whistleblower revealed that there was a persistent problem at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Spring of officers failing to investigate and prosecute sexual assaults.

That tip set off a firestorm in Congress and eventually led to a scathing report by an Inspector General that faulted Air Force leaders with ignoring roughly 150 cases of sexual assault over the previous decade.

The investigation into the Air Force academy served as a turning point for the U.S. military and its service academies, and it brought the issue firmly into the public spotlight.

But since then, cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault have continued to plague the U.S. Armed Services.

Congress has passed numerous laws since 2003 that have sought to change how those cases are reported, investigated and prosecuted in the various military branches. But recent reports have shown sexual harassment and assault remain a problem for soldiers, sailors, airmen and cadets.

The Department of Defense, which oversees the Army, Navy and Air Force, fielded more than 200 reports of sexual assault at the country’s three largest military academies during the 2021-2022 academic year.

Meanwhile, the Coast Guard, which is much smaller than the other branches, reported more than 200 cases of sexual assault in the service in 2021 alone. That report does not break out the number of assaults on Coast Guard cadets or recruits, but it shows that more than 133 of the cases included allegations against a service member.

‘Unconscionable failures’

Democratic and Republican lawmakers took turns Thursday criticizing the Coast Guard’s handling of the investigation and emphasizing that the coverup of the investigation further compounded the branch’s failure to properly investigate and prosecute the earlier crimes.

“A years-long investigation into allegations of sexual assault and sexual violence at the United States Coast Guard Academy uncovered a painful history but failed to result in any accountability and was not disclosed to this committee for the better part of a decade,” Sen. Tammy Baldwin said in opening the hearing. “This is disturbing and unacceptable.”

The allegations examined as part of the investigation spanned from 1988 to 2006, but Baldwin said the investigation, in her opinion, was evidence of more persistent problems at the Coast Guard and its academy in Connecticut.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., led a committee hearing on July 13, 2023, in which federal lawmakers questioned the Coast Guard’s leadership about its handling of sexual assaults at the Coast Guard Academy.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., led a committee hearing on July 13, 2023, in which federal lawmakers questioned the Coast Guard’s leadership about its handling of sexual assaults at the Coast Guard Academy.

“The unconscionable failures of justice that occurred at the academy are not isolated events. They are a symptom of a larger cultural problem in the Coast Guard of sexual harassment, sexual assault and cronyism that stands in the way of accountability,” Baldwin said.

Other lawmakers pointed out that the Coast Guard’s failure to protect its cadets and guardsmen was unlikely to help with the branch’s current problem of recruiting and retaining service members.

“There’s no place for sexual assault, sexual harassment in our society, particularly not in our military,” Sen. Daniel Sullivan, R-Alaska, said during the hearing. “It is essential that members of our armed forces feel safe. And it is unacceptable that institutions and leaders that were supposed to protect them failed to do so.”

Though she was not in charge when the investigation was finished in 2020, Fagan took responsibility for the Coast Guard’s past failures and apologized for the decades of inaction at the academy in Connecticut.

“I, again, apologize to each victim, survivor and their loved ones,” Fagan said. “We failed to provide the safe environment that every member of the Coast Guard deserves.”

She also promised federal lawmakers that under her leadership the Coast Guard would be more diligent in handling cases of sexual assault and harassment moving forward.

“I’m committed to improving our prevention efforts, prompt and thorough investigations into reports of sexual assault and harassment, accountability for perpetrators, compassionate support to victims and full transparency with Congress and the American people,” she said.

The Coast Guard Academy Class of 2022 swears-in at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.
Provided / Paul Duddy
The Coast Guard Academy Class of 2022 swears-in at the Coast Guard Academy in New London.

Fagan testified that she and other leaders have taken recent steps as a direct response to the news and to better understand the culture within the Coast Guard.

She provided Congress with a letter that was sent to all of the Coast Guard’s current service members. She also announced that she started a 90-day review of accountability and transparency that will be led by a flag officer “to ensure we have a culture where everyone is safe and valued.”

When it comes to health services for victims, Fagan said behavioral health support has been offered to them, and they will continue to provide those services if more people come forward — something Fagan believes will happen.

“I expect we will have additional victims and survivors come forward in the weeks and months to come,” she told the members of Congress, “and we are prepared to provide services to those individuals as well.”

Ongoing changes

Many of the biggest reforms established by Congress to tackle sexual assault in the military have excluded the Coast Guard because of jurisdiction issues. Unlike other military branches, the Coast Guard does not fall under the purview of the Department of Defense and instead reports to the Department of Homeland Security.

That bureaucratic separation has meant the Coast Guard and its military academy in New London were not legally required to adopt some of the reforms that federal lawmakers demanded of the Army, Navy and Air Force in recent years.

Over the past three years, Congress used the National Defense Authorization Act to force the three largest military branches to appoint a special counsel to independently investigate and prosecute serious crimes, like sexual assault.

Federal lawmakers also forced the Army, Navyand Air Force to implement “Safe to Report” policies. Those policies are meant to ensure victims of sexual assaults who come forward aren’t subsequently punished for other minor infractions that might have been committed, like underage drinking or being out past curfew, when the crime took place.

Fagan told lawmakers during the oversight hearing that the Coast Guard has voluntarily adopted some of those policies, including the creation of a new special prosecutor by this summer.

But some lawmakers believe Congress needs to act to require the Coast Guard to meet all of the requirements placed on the other military branches.

Hats and shoulder boards lie on the ground as 224 newly minted officers leave after the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s 132nd Commencement Ceremony in New London, Conn.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Lanola Stone / USCG Academy
Hats and shoulder boards lie on the ground as 224 newly minted officers leave after the U.S. Coast Guard Academy’s 132nd Commencement Ceremony in New London, Conn.

Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, believes the Coast Guard Academy should also have policies in place to make sure cadets and service members aren’t punished for minor offenses when they report a sexual assault.

“To have situations like this, which were clearly mishandled as far as communication with Congress and the public, it’s just exasperating,” Courtney said. “Sometimes these things happen, as we know, when people are out consuming alcohol, and so if you report, that is not going to be used against you.”

For Courtney’s eastern Connecticut district, defense plays a key economic and workforce role. The state’s 2nd District is home to major defense contractors like Electric Boat as well as the Naval Submarine Base New London and the Coast Guard Academy. Because of that involvement, Courtney said he heard from Fagan prior to the release of the CNN report.

Courtney played up the importance of the Coast Guard. He recently got back from a trip with other members of the House Armed Services Committee to the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan, and he said the Coast Guard mission was vital there.

“The bottom line is, given the activity that has surrounded the other military academies, this report is highly relevant and could have been useful in terms of getting a result faster than where we are today in 2023,” Courtney said.

Lingering doubts

Other lawmakers in Connecticut’s congressional delegation are brainstorming ways to achieve reforms through Congress aside from the NDAA.

Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Conn., sees the upcoming appropriations bills that fund agencies within the federal government as a potential avenue for addressing the problems within the Coast Guard. While the legislation is still in the initial stages, Murphy said he expects a provision in it to broadly demand accountability from the Coast Guard.

“The one piece of legislation that impacts the Coast Guard budget that has to pass this year is the budget that my committee writes,” Murphy said in an interview. “We are working through language to be included in the Coast Guard budget that would require the kind of transparency and accountability that these cadets deserve.”

Murphy, who is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security, has been pressing for more accountability from the Coast Guard for years, especially when it comes to allegations surrounding sexual assault and racial discrimination.

He had taken issue with Fagan’s predecessor, Adm. Karl Schultz, who was Coast Guard commandant in 2019 when he declined to appear before Congress to discuss claims of harassment and bullying within the Coast Guard Academy. Schultz served in the top role from 2018 to 2022, which was during the period of time that the Fouled Anchor investigation was wrapping up.

In response to that investigation, Murphy is also pushing for additional data on harassment allegations that extend beyond 2006, though he added his skepticism about the Coast Guard itself pursuing further examination. Murphy said he understood the time frame of the investigation as “effectively arbitrary” on the end date.

“My sense is there has been a serious culture problem at the academy. Unfortunately, this is not unfamiliar on college campuses, nor is it unfamiliar inside the U.S. military. What I have picked up on over the years is an explaining-away of racial discrimination and sexual assault at the Coast Guard,” Murphy said.

“They have assured me over the years that they’ve made those changes,” he added. “This makes me reconsider and doubt every promise and commitment they’ve made to me, because they clearly were sitting on an explosive report that confirmed all the worst fears people had about the culture, and they buried it intentionally.”

Other senators see legislation as a potential solution, though they say it is unclear exactly what that should look like and caution that more oversight is needed to get a fuller picture.

Baldwin, chairwoman of a Commerce Subcommittee that oversees the Coast Guard, noted that any legislative response “remains to be seen,” especially as her committee continues conducting oversight.

“We are working on a Coast Guard reauthorization measure in addition to working through our appropriations measures, so both avenues remain available to us,” Baldwin said in an interview prior to Thursday’s hearing.

Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., said legislation is “certainly a possibility to protect survivors and victims,” but he said he also wants more answers before doing so. He added that the concerns from the investigation could have a ripple effect and hurt the Coast Guard’s recruitment at a time when the service, like many other industries, is facing worker shortages.

“I’m not sure what the legislation would be, but before we do the legislation, we should probably know more than just what’s in the report,” Blumenthal said. “The present leadership of the academy may not have been directly implicated, but it certainly reflects on the institution and it will affect the Coast Guard in recruiting as well as retention.”

While the next steps on legislation remain unclear, lawmakers feel confident that there will be bipartisan support for conducting additional oversight and addressing the situation.

“I think there are a lot of questions that need to be answered,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who serves as ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee. “One step at a time. The first step is oversight and getting our questions answered.”

As they look to avoid a repeat of nondisclosures of future allegations, lawmakers are broadly concerned about the culture at the Coast Guard and making sure that both cadets and enlisted members feel safe.

Cantwell noted she was hopeful about Fagan’s leadership as the first woman tapped to lead a U.S. military branch that would “usher in a new era,” particularly for women. Cantwell referenced recent changes within the Coast Guard expanding parental leave for service members to 12 weeks.

Fagan conceded that the Coast Guard has a culture “in areas that is permissive and allows sexual assaults, harassment, bullying, retaliation that’s inconsistent with our core values.” But when pushed further by Cantwell on this point, Fagan clarified that she does not believe the Coast Guard has a culture of assault and that she was referring to the period around the 1980s. And she argued they have made major strides, while acknowledging that much more needs to be done.

“There was a legacy of mishandling of reports of sexual assault at the Coast Guard Academy in the ’80s. We have made an incredible amount of progress as an organization investing in policy, victim support, how we investigate and hold accountable those perpetrators,” Fagan said.

“We are not the same organization today that we were in the 1980s,” she continued, “but we are not where we need to be.”

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

The Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio federal policy reporter position is made possible, in part, by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation and Engage CT.

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