Senate accuses Coast Guard of delaying assault investigation | WORLD
Sound journalism, grounded in facts and Biblical truth | Donate

Senate accuses Coast Guard of delaying assault investigation

Lawmakers say the military branch has a culture of covering up sexual abuse

U.S. Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan speaks during a Senate Subcommittee on Investigations hearing on Capitol Hill, Tuesday. Getty Images/Photo by Andrew Harnik

Senate accuses Coast Guard of delaying assault investigation

WASHINGTON—A Senate committee this week grilled the Coast Guard’s first female commandant, Adm. Linda Fagan, about accusations that leaders mishandled and covered up sexual assault cases for decades. Senators complained that the Coast Guard has been slow to hand over documents and implement solutions while also conducting a failed recovery operation behind Congress’ back.

“Nearly six 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.”

The problem started long before Congress was aware. Operation Fouled Anchor began in 2014 to address the mishandling of 102 sexual assault reports at the Coast Guard Academy between 1988 and 2006. Investigators found that most of the alleged perpetrators were not punished or even investigated. The internal operation called for meetings with survivors and the recording of case reports that leadership had covered up. But the same leadership opted not to inform Congress.

Shannon Norenberg was one member of Fouled Anchor, working for the Coast Guard as a sexual assault response coordinator. In a public letter released on Sunday, Norenberg wrote about how she traveled throughout the United States between 2018 and 2020 to meet with survivors. While the Coast Guard does not formally apologize, Norenberg was supposed to offer official statements of regret, listen to survivors’ stories, and answer what questions she could. Sheets of talking points informed survivors that Congress had been briefed and that the operation would likely become public at some point.

She was also instructed to allow victims to retroactively fill out a form called CG-6095, the Victim Reporting Preference Statement. This form would then be logged in the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database, which would allow the person reporting it access to mental health benefits through Veterans Affairs. But right before the meetings started, the Coast Guard yanked this form. Norenberg was concerned at the time but followed orders. Then, this month, she found paper copies of her instructions and talking points. Norenberg said she now thinks the removal was an attempt to keep case numbers low in the database.

“If we had given the victims the CG-6095’s to sign … I would have been legally obligated to enter every one of those sexual assault cases into DSAID for 2019,” Norenberg wrote. “Entering dozens of sexual assault cases into DSAID would have led to a huge spike in cases at the Coast Guard Academy, and this massive spike in reported cases of sexual assault at the Coast Guard Academy would have been seen by everyone, but especially by Congress.”

At the same time Norenberg was traveling, then-commandant Adm. Charles Ray jotted down some pros and cons of informing Congress of the operation. In the pros category, he wrote, “rip the bandaid off,” and, “proactive vs reactive.” In the longer cons category, he wrote, “investigations w/o end,” and, “long standing policy.” His list culminated with the sentence, “The problem is a thing of the past.”

“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 wrote. “They lied to me. 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.”

The story spilled out last year when CNN reported the existence of Operation Fouled Anchor and the decision to leave Congress in the dark. Now, senators on the Homeland Security and Government Affairs committees are requesting all related documents as part of an investigation.

Blumenthal said more than 40 whistleblowers contacted his office just this year, telling stories of how their cases were brushed aside. He also criticized Fagan for failing to send thousands of documents the subcommittee requested, both case files and decisions not to notify Congress.

“The evidence points to a culture of cover-up exemplified by a resistance to producing for us documents that should be part of this investigation,” Blumenthal argued on Tuesday.

Fagan admitted to the agency’s failures in her testimony on Tuesday, saying, “My response is that it is unacceptable. Not in my Coast Guard.”

Shannon Norenberg resigned on Sunday. During the subcommittee hearing on Tuesday, he sat in the second row behind the Coast Guard officers accompanying Fagan. When Fagan took over in 2022, she stopped asking sexual assault victims to sign nondisclosure agreements. Last year, she publicly apologized for the failure to notify Congress, calling the internal decision a mistake. But senators complained that she still has not turned over all the documents they require.

The House Committee on Oversight and Accountability is conducting a similar investigation and said that the Coast Guard has only sent 8,338 pages of the 1.8 million they requested nearly a year ago. In the Senate hearing on Tuesday, Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., held up pages heavily marked by black boxes. One page was entirely redacted.

“Of the 37,000 pages we’ve requested, we’ve only received 17,000,” he said. “This is all part of the runaround, about running out the clock. You have completely ignored the constitutional responsibility to provide these documents to Congress and the American people.”

Fagan defended her leadership, pointing to several programs launched as part of a broader effort to change the culture of the Coast Guard. The Government Accountability Office recommended 30 actions after reviewing the agency, and Fagan said all are in some phase of implementation, though she could not answer if any has been completed according to the GAO’s timeline. She also did not have answers for Blumenthal on whether any Coast Guard members had been removed following sexual misconduct violations.

On the documents question, Fagan blamed government red tape for the heavy redactions. She also complained of a 10-person staff overwhelmed by all the documentation Congress requested. But she said she did not have resource requests ready for Blumenthal.

“We’re going through appropriations for 2025 right now,” Blumenthal criticized. “If you need more support, you need to let us know.”

Blumenthal also pointed to Norenberg sitting in the audience and asked if Fagan had read her public letter. Fagan responded that she was aware of the letter and considered Norenberg a “great employee,” but had not yet read it.

“I was very surprised, very disappointed,” Norenberg told WORLD. “But actually, on some levels, it just sort of characterizes how they’ve approached this whole entire thing.”

Blumenthal said he hopes to release a committee report shortly, but he still wants more documents from the Coast Guard. In the hearing, Fagan promised to allow committee members to come and view certain internal memos in a secure setting.

“The Coast Guard and the military in general has an opportunity to step out in front of this,” Norenberg said. “ I would push back on that and say there’s a difference. These members in the Coast Guard operate under a power system that suppresses their voices. It suppresses their ability to really speak truth to power. They’ve been retaliated against over and over and over, and this is known, so that’s very different.”

Carolina Lumetta

Carolina is a WORLD reporter and a graduate of the World Journalism Institute and Wheaton College. She resides in Washington, D.C.


This keeps me from having to slog through digital miles of other news sites. —Nick

Sign up to receive The Stew, WORLD’s free weekly email newsletter on politics and government.

Please wait while we load the latest comments...