Coast Guard commandant says permissive culture toward sexual assault lingers in parts of the service
Stars and Stripes July 13, 2023
WASHINGTON — The commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard acknowledged Thursday that “pockets” of the service have retained a permissive attitude toward sexual assault years after the cover-up of sexual assault and harassment cases at the Coast Guard’s academy.
Adm. Linda Fagan, the service commandant, made the admission amid a barrage of questioning from a subpanel of the Senate Commerce Committee, which has oversight of the Coast Guard and learned last month of a six-year, clandestine inquiry into sexual assault at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
The probe found 62 incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment occurred at the academy or by cadets between 1988 and 2006 and discovered another 42 cases that were not properly investigated. The internal review, called “Operation Fouled Anchor,” was completed in 2020 but the service did not reveal it to Congress until CNN reported details of the inquiry.
“We failed the committee when we did not disclose in 2020,” Fagan said. “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 work force that I want or expect and we have got work to do.”
Fagan took command last year of the Coast Guard, becoming the first woman in history to lead a military service. She told senators that she was aware of the academy investigation but did not realize the “totality” of it until reporters began asking questions.
The Coast Guard apologized last month for failing to investigate or discipline many of the accused, conceding “by not having taken appropriate action at the time of the sexual assaults, the Coast Guard may have further traumatized the victims, delayed access to their care and recovery, and prevented some cases from being referred to the military justice system for appropriate accountability.”
Fagan said the service is establishing a special prosecuting office that will remove sexual assault and harassment cases from the chain of command, aligning the Coast Guard with Defense Department policies. The Coast Guard is part of the armed forces but is housed within the Department of Homeland Security.
The service also launched a 90-day “accountability and transparency review” and is continuing to invest in victim and survivor services in anticipation of more cases coming to light, Fagan said.
The Coast Guard reported last month that it reached out to all known victims and invited them to in-person meetings where they could learn about their cases and access support services. The service also said it took “action to hold accountable” perpetrators who remained within its jurisdiction.
Senators on Thursday pressed Fagan to do more for justice. The academy investigation revealed at least two senior officers who committed offenses were allowed to retire with full pensions and veteran benefits and were recommended for promotions while they were under investigation.
Fagan cautioned she might lack the jurisdiction to relieve certain people of their positions. She emphasized the Coast Guard has made “incredible progress” to right its wrongs and intends to further address shortcomings.
“We are not the same organization today that we were in the 1980s but we are not where we need to be,” she said. “Just like on a ship when you have rust, you’ve got pockets of rust that need to be eliminated from the organization to ensure there is no silence around [sexual assault], that every victim feels safe coming forward and that they’re supported. The end goal is that we have zero sexual assault in the organization.”
Fagan’s reassurances did not entirely convince lawmakers.
Sen. Tammy Baldwin, D-Wis., said the academy investigation and the Coast Guard’s failure to disclose its findings exposed “deep-rooted issues” in the service. She said she worried similar cases of sexual assault and harassment were rife among enlisted members and impacted the service beyond the academy.
Women represent 40% of the academy’s cadets and comprise about 10% to 25% of enlisted members, depending on their rank. The Coast Guard came under fire from lawmakers last year for how it handled a 2018 sexual assault complaint at its training center in Cape May, N.J.
Baldwin said other incidents make her question the Coast Guard’s ability and willpower to comply with laws and demand accountability. The Coast Guard has faced allegations in recent years that it did not prosecute or report instances of sexual violence that occurred on commercial, U.S.-flagged ships.
“The unconscionable failures of justice that occurred at the academy are not isolated events, they are a symptom of a larger cultural problem of sexual harassment, assault and cronyism that stands in the way of accountability,” Baldwin said.
Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the chairwoman of the Commerce committee, described the situation as “heartbreaking, maddening, frustrating and intolerable.” She said she will request an inspector general investigation to conduct an independent review.
“We’re going to get a third-party involved here to make sure that we have the oversight, the evaluation and that Congress has transparency into the situation and what we need to do,” she said. “This is such a serious matter, we have to fix it.”