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Records detail why U.S. Coast Guard Academy sex assault inquiry went undisclosed


Records detail why U.S. Coast Guard Academy sex assault inquiry went undisclosed

Feb 20, 2024 | 3:08 pm ET
By Lisa Hagen
Records detail why U.S. Coast Guard Academy sex assault inquiry went undisclosed
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., is under fire after it was revealed that sexual assault allegations went unreported or ignored for years. (Courtesy U.S. Coast Guard Academy)

Documents related to the Coast Guard’s investigation into sexual assault claims at its New London, Connecticut-based academy, released last week, shed new light on the behind-the-scenes decision-making that went into not disclosing the findings to Congress for years.

The report about “Operation Fouled Anchor” was finalized in 2020 but was kept secret until last year. The six-year investigation looked into dozens of substantiated sexual assault claims at the Coast Guard Academy that occurred between 1988 and 2006 and why many were not properly handled or ignored.

But as the inquiry was nearing its end, Coast Guard leaders weighed whether to inform Congress and the perceived risks of doing so, records from 2018 show. The documents were given this month to the Senate Homeland Security Committee’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, which released them publicly on Friday, Feb. 16.

The documents recommended, among other things, not “risk[ing] the initiation of comprehensive Congressional investigations, hearings and media interest.”

In September, U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn.), opened up an investigation into Fouled Anchor as chairman of the subcommittee alongside Ranking Member Ron Johnson, R-Wis. They requested documents related to Fouled Anchor to be submitted to their committee by Jan. 19.

In an email sent this week to Commandant Linda Fagan, they voiced concerns that the records “raise new questions about the reasons for the Coast Guard’s fall of 2018 decision not to brief Congress about Operation Fouled Anchor.”

“This document raised more questions than it answers,” Blumenthal said in an interview. “It reflects on the motives of concealing the document, which was that they feared congressional, investigative or media coverage. Who made the decision?”

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.

[RELATED: Cadets: Coast Guard Academy has ‘corrosive pattern’ of assault]1

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 Adm. Charles Ray wrote them.

The advantages of disclosure, in Ray’s opinion, were “rip the bandaid off,” “proactive vs. reactive” and “cultural guilt purged.” He described the cons as re-victimizing and investigations without an end. Additional notes from Ray on the same page noted that the “problem is one of the past” and acknowledged that “if things are bad, they get worse with nondisclosure.”

This document raised more questions than it answer. It reflects on the motives of concealing the document, which was that they feared congressional, investigative or media coverage. Who made the decision?

– U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, (D-Conn.)

The Coast Guard’s six-year investigation and the subsequent report about it were buried for three years until CNN started looking into it and published a story last June.

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.

[RELATED: Congress criticizes cover-up of Coast Guard Academy sex assault claims]

Adm. Karl Schultz served as commandant from 2018 to 2022, which was during the period of time that Fouled Anchor was still happening and concluded. Fagan took the helm in June 2022. She told Congress last year she knew of the investigation generally but she only became aware of the full scope of the investigation 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 statement. “To date, the Coast Guard has provided thousands of pages to Congress and the Inspector General, including the 2018 document outlining options regarding disclosure of the report.”

In a memo from Oct. 16, 2018, Coast Guard leaders provided a list of options of how to proceed as they were nearing the end of Fouled Anchor. The Coast Guard did not provide the name or names of who wrote the memo, but Blumenthal said he is seeking information about who wrote it.

The unknown author of the memo recommended only telling Congress if prompted about it. It did not recommend being “proactive with Congress.”

“Any disclosure to congressional staff risks compromising victims’ privacy and potentially re-victimizing them,” the memo reads. “Congressional staffs often request investigations in their entirety, and if the request is made by Committee chairs, it is our obligation to produce all materials without redaction; in practice, this means any type of affirmative Congressional communications strategy will trigger document production requests that will make it challenging to protect the identity and rights of victims and subjects.”

The memo cited other concerns of voluntary disclosure with the potential pressure of the Coast Guard investigating allegations between 2006 and 2018, subjecting them to “intense scrutiny of all past to present [Coast Guard Academy] leadership” and opening them up to criticism over how they handle sexual assault claims.

They also considered other recommendations like whether to keep referring to the investigations under one name like Operation Fouled Anchor or instead be discussed as individual instances.

The memo concluded that regardless of the course of action taken on Fouled Anchor, executive leadership should receive a briefing on the full investigation and findings.

Blumenthal and Johnson requested additional documents without redactions. Their email to Fagan notes that one of the missing email attachments is an early draft of the Fouled Anchor report that was seen by some Coast Guard officials in March 2019. The report was finalized in early 2020.

The senators specified what they would like from the Coast Guard by Feb. 29: records related to the already-sent email attachments and a list of meetings where the records were discussed, as well as the participants, and all individuals who contributed to the documents and received them.

They also asked for past and current personnel who were involved in “preparing, drafting or reviewing the enclosed documents” to participate in in-person interviews from March 4 to 8. Blumenthal has previously indicated that subpoenas are on the table if Coast Guard leaders do not comply.

As a couple of congressional committees continue to investigate, as well as the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Inspector General, lawmakers are also turning to legislation.

U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, (D-2nd District), introduced a bill last August on a safe-to-report policy at the Coast Guard Academy. It would ensure victims of sexual assaults who come forward are not punished for minor infractions under the Uniform Code of Military Justice that might have been committed when the crime took place. Those incidents include underage drinking, substance abuse, violations of curfew or being in areas that are off limits.

Blumenthal, U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, (D-Conn.), and a group of bipartisan senators introduced similar legislation last week to protect those who are reporting cases of sexual assault and sexual harassment at the academy and in the Coast Guard.

The Coast Guard recently announced the adoption of a safe-to-report policy.

This story first ran in Connecticut Mirror, a nonprofit, non-partisan, and digital only source for in-depth news and reporting on public policy, government and politics. Connecticut Mirror is a content partner of States Newsroom. Read the original version here.