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Coast Guard lied to hide sexual assault inquiry, whistleblower says

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

An official with the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London says the Coast Guard lied to her and victims of sexual assault in damning new allegations about the coverup of the investigation known as Operation Fouled Anchor.

That led to Shannon Norenberg’s decision to resign as the service academy’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator — a job she held since 2013 — and speak out about her unintended role surrounding the investigation and the Coast Guard’s lack of disclosure to Congress.

Her story will prompt new scrutiny of the Coast Guard ahead of a major hearing with Commandant Linda Fagan. On Tuesday, Fagan will testify for the first time in almost a year, this time before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations chaired by U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn. As the sole witness, lawmakers are expected to question her about Fouled Anchor and the service’s current handling of sexual misconduct reports within the academy and service.

Norenberg’s claims are part of a lengthy public statement posted late Sunday. She provides a detailed account of being tasked with reaching out to victims as Fouled Anchor was still underway but feeling like she was not able to provide them with necessary resources — and receiving talking points with false information.

As a sexual assault survivor herself, she said she believed her job would provide victims with “a legitimate pathway for accountability and recovery.” But after CNN’s report last summer about Fouled Anchor, she started to reexamine that time and, a few weeks ago, located old records related to it.

Norenberg claims that the Coast Guard lied to her and “used me to lie to victims” and “used me in a coordinated effort to discourage victims of sexual assault at the Academy from speaking to Congress.”

“We weren’t sent out there to help these people, I realized. We were sent out there as part of an elaborate coverup of Operation Fouled Anchor designed to hide the existence of the investigation from Congress and the public,” Norenberg said in the statement. “The whole thing was a cruel coverup at the expense of the victims, with the entire purpose being to preserve the image of the Coast Guard and avoid scandal. And the Coast Guard used me as part of their plan.”

‘The Coast Guard lied to me’

Norenberg said she learned of what would become known as Operation Fouled Anchor when she was flown in for a meeting at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, D.C., in late 2018.

At this briefing, she said, she was informed about the details of the investigation, which at that point had been underway for four years. As the academy’s sexual assault response coordinator, she would input names into case management system used across the military services called the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database. She said she was never asked to put names discovered through Fouled Anchor into the system.

Norenberg said she was asked to call victims who were already interviewed during Fouled Anchor to try and set up in-person visits on what was described to her as an “apology tour.” In her statement, she provided a photo of guidelines for how to handle phone calls and a list of talking points for when she was traveling to meet with them. Norenberg said she traveled with a Coast Guard attorney and an agent with the Coast Guard Investigative Service for several months in 2019.

“The way it was pitched to me was that this would be a kind of ‘apology tour,’ where we would apologize in-person to the victims for what happened to them, update them on the outcome of their cases, offer them some closure, and offer services to help them heal,” she wrote. “Apology was not the term the Coast Guard used, however. Instead, we were to offer the victims an ‘Official Expression of Regret.'”

In the statement, Norenberg included a list of talking points to one of the most frequently asked questions from the victims they met with: “Is anyone being held accountable?” The recommended answers were that criminal action was not available and the only option is personnel actions. They also suggested giving a “general statement that actions of Academy officials from the time are under review.”

For these visits, Norenberg said, she was initially told to provide them with CG-6095 forms, which was the formal way of reporting sexual misconduct and would allow them to more easily access services from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs related to military sexual trauma. But she was later told they would not offer them.

She said if victims signed and submitted those forms, Norenberg would have been required to put them into the DSAID case management system, and Congress would have ultimately taken notice about the spike in reports.

Some of the other talking points included telling victims that Congress and the Department of Homeland Security “have been briefed on the general outline of the investigation, what was found, and what disposition decisions were made.” But Congress was unaware of Fouled Anchor’s existence until years later, in 2023.

“The inevitable result would have been Operation Fouled Anchor being discovered by Congress. To prevent Operation Fouled Anchor from being discovered by Congress, Coast Guard leaders deliberately withheld VA military sexual trauma benefits and services from the survivors we were sent around to meet with,” Norenberg said. “Worse, we offered them absolutely nothing to replace those lost benefits and services. We just left the victims to fend for themselves.”

In the post, Norenberg apologized to the sexual assault survivors at the academy and also posted a video to a Youtube channel where she says she will post stories of survivors. She is also starting a nonprofit to help with legal services for military victims of sexual trauma.

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment about the allegations related to Operation Fouled Anchor and Norenberg’s public statement.

Upcoming hearing on Coast Guard oversight

On Tuesday, Fagan will testify before Congress for the first time in almost a year. Several congressional committees, as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General’s office, have been investigating since CNN reported on the existence of Fouled Anchor.

In congressional testimony last summer, Fagan apologized for the Coast Guard’s inaction and failure to disclose to Congress. She recently released a 90-day internal review addressing the culture problems within the service and its academy as well as reforms they plan to implement.

Adm. Karl Schultz served as commandant from 2018 to 2022, during which time Operation Fouled Anchor was underway and concluded. Fagan took the helm in June 2022. She told Congress last year she knew of the investigation generally but became aware of the full scope of the investigation only when CNN started asking questions.

“As the Commandant has testified, we regret not providing to Congress the 2020 report into investigations of prior sexual misconduct at the Coast Guard Academy. Congressional and Inspector General inquiries into the Coast Guard’s handling of the investigations and the report continue, and the Commandant remains committed to transparency and cooperation with these inquiries,” a Coast Guard spokesperson said in a February statement.

Blumenthal’s committee has requested internal documents as well as testimony from officials but has received only some of the records, and many of them are redacted or duplicates.

Some of the documents publicized earlier this year shed light on the behind-the-scenes decision-making that went into not disclosing the findings to Congress for years.

The 25-page tranche of documents from 2018 included discussions about whether to notify Congress about the existence of Fouled Anchor, a plan to provide victims with recovery services and timelines of the investigation.

The documents included handwritten notes, such as a pro and con list about whether to tell Congress. The email from the senators notes the Coast Guard’s confirmation that then-Vice Commandant Admiral Charles Ray wrote them.

Since revelations about Fouled Anchor, past and present cadets testified before Blumenthal’s panel about their experiences with reporting sexual harassment and assault during their times at the New London academy, describing it as a “corrosive pattern” within the Coast Guard.

“My experiences are not isolated events. There are hundreds of similar stories within the academy and throughout the fleet involving officers and enlisted members alike,” retired Lt. Melissa McCafferty, who graduated from the academy in 2011, said at the December hearing. “As a result, there exists a corrosive pattern of sexual assault, harassment, abuse, bullying, intimidation and retaliation. This is insidious, this is pervasive, and this is continuing to this day.”

In the six months since that hearing, Blumenthal and Ranking Member Ron Johnson, R-Wis., have expressed growing frustration as it seeks more answers from Coast Guard leadership.

“In the nearly seven months since our inquiry began, it appears the Coast Guard’s actions can only be explained by either its indifference or another shameful attempt to cover up the embarrassing truths of its mishandling of cases involving sexual assault and sexual harassment,” Blumenthal and Johnson wrote in an April letter to Fagan. “Simply put, the Coast Guard’s lack of responsiveness stands in stark contrast to your previous commitments to be fully transparent with Congress and the American people.”

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.

This story was originally published by the Connecticut Mirror.

Lisa Hagen is CT Public and CT Mirror’s shared Federal Policy Reporter. Based in Washington, D.C., she focuses on the impact of federal policy in Connecticut and covers the state’s congressional delegation. Lisa previously covered national politics and campaigns for U.S. News & World Report, The Hill and National Journal’s Hotline.

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