Senators grill Coast Guard commandant over sexual assault probe

Senators on Tuesday grilled Adm. Linda Fagan, the first female head of the Coast Guard, on an alleged “culture of cover-ups” amid a congressional investigation into the branch’s response to sexual assault.

“Nearly 6 months ago when we began this investigation we were assured that sexual assault was a thing of the past,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said at the hearing. “We have found the opposite to be true.”

At the center of the Coast Guard controversy is Operation Fouled Anchor — an internal probe led by the branch investigating sexual misconduct at the Coast Guard Academy between 1988 and 2006. The investigation, which closed in 2020, was not voluntarily disclosed to Congress by the Coast Guard until 2023,

“Our failure to share the report with Congress was a mistake,” Fagan acknowledged during the hearing.

The Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Subcommittee on Investigations questioned Fagan on the actions the Coast Guard has taken since the public disclosure of Operation Fouled Anchor

Among the points of contention was the Coast Guard’s failure to disclose documents to aid the subcommittee’s own oversight investigation, which began in September of 2023.

The senators reported receiving some 1,000 pages of documents on Monday, the day before the hearing was scheduled. Blumenthal, the chair of the subcommittee, characterized it as a “document dump” and said he would like to see “more cooperation” from the guard.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), ranking member of the subcommittee, at one point held up several documents shared by the Coast Guard, paging through them to reveal substantial redactions throughout the provided materials.

“I am totally unsatisfied without a more straightforward commitment to disclosure,” Blumenthal told The Hill following the hearing. “There is no reason that these documents would be concealed and withheld without more action to stop sexual assault and retaliation.”

The days before the hearing were marked by growing controversy. On Sunday,

Sharon Norenberg, the Coast Guard Academy’s head of sexual assault prevention, announced her resignation, denouncing higher ups in the process. She was present in the audience at Tuesday’s hearing.

“The Coast Guard lied to me,” she wrote in a public statement also sent to the investigations subcommittee. “Worse than that, they used me to lie to victims, used me to silence victims, and used me in a coordinated effort to discourage victims of sexual assault at the Academy from speaking to Congress about their assaults and about the Coast Guard’s investigation of their cases.”

Blumenthal said the Coast Guard had yet to change its ways.

“Our investigation also very sadly has shown that the Coast Guard is continuing to suffer from a culture of concealment and cover-up,” he said at a press conference ahead of the hearing.

Approximately 40 whistleblowers have come forward since the beginning of the congressional probe, according to Blumenthal. Three survivors of sexual assault and misconduct during their time in the Coast Guard came forward publicly at a subcommittee hearing in December.

Senators repeatedly pushed Fagan on Tuesday to commit to disclosing documents and taking action against officers who played a part in retaliatory actions against survivors, noting that she was not implicated in the cover-up of Operation Fouled Anchor.

Fagan consistently declined to directly answer questions, pointing to the ongoing investigation into Coast Guard practices by the Office of the Inspector General (IG).

“The IG investigation cannot be used as an excuse for inaction,” Blumenthal said to Fagan.

Johnson called on Fagan to make use of the Department of Homeland Security’s resources in investigating her department, while Blumenthal pressed her to make the branch’s needs known as Congress embarks on its appropriations process this summer.

As the senators pried into the hows and whens of the Coast Guard’s plans to curb sexual assault, harrasment, and retaliation among their ranks, Fagan reiterated her commitment to the survivors and ensuring safety for all members.

“That is unacceptable. Not in my Coast Guard,” she said.

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