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    Sunday, March 03, 2024

    Questions of accountability linger in Coast Guard report

    Adm. Linda Fagan, commandant of the U.S. Coast Guard, addresses those gathered for a keel laying ceremony for the national U.S. Coast Guard Museum Friday, August 19, 2022 in New London. (Sean D. Elliot/The Day file photo)
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    Connecticut lawmakers are citing a lack of accountability in a report from the U.S. Coast Guard that was supposed to shed light on the “culture of cover-up” going back decades.

    Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan described the anecdotes, survey results and investigation data comprising the 76-page U.S. Coast Guard Accountability and Transparency Review Team Report as clear evidence that “change is necessary.”

    The report was released Wednesday along with a memo from Fagan calling for dozens of improvements based on the findings, from expanding in-person training on sexual harassment and assault prevention to calling for an examination of retirement policy in cases where past misconduct comes to light.

    The review was ordered by Fagan in the wake of news from the cable outlet CNN that a study detailing years of sexual misconduct at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy had been covered up by Fagan’s predecessor, Adm. Karl Schultz.

    Dubbed Operation Fouled Anchor, the internal investigation identified 62 substantiated incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment that occurred at the service academy from 1988 to 2006. Dozens of other claims were reportedly not investigated.

    Fagan, in publicly acknowledging the Coast Guard’s failure and apologizing to victims after the CNN story came out, gave 90 days for an executive team led by Rear Admiral Miriam Lafferty, Master Chief Ann Logan and Coast Guard Academy graduate John Luce to complete its review. The team presented its findings to Fagan in October.

    The accountability and transparency review team spent 90 days visiting Coast Guard installations across the county and reviewed studies from 1990 through today. Included in those studies was the 2015 Culture of Respect Report, which was leaked to CNN in an article published last week with details about racism, hazing, discrimination and sexual assault across the Coast Guard organization.

    U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy in a statement said “the modest plan” laid out in the transparency and accountability report doesn’t hold anyone accountable for past failures and is “nothing more than paper” until concrete steps are taken.

    “I look forward to receiving detailed updates from leadership on implementation of these recommendations and their continued commitment to reforming the organization’s culture of cover-up,” he said.

    In her Nov. 27 memo to vice commandant Admiral Steven D. Poulin, Fagan ordered more training at every level of the service, more support for preventing and responding to harmful behaviors, and a commitment to holding people accountable for violations and for not reporting them up the chain of command.

    The Coast Guard reports to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security. That means they are subject to different policy and budget decisions than the Army, Navy and Air Force, which report to the U.S. Department of Defense.

    The review team began its report with a letter to the Coast Guard workforce about its impressions from visits to ships, shore-side units and training centers. What they found was a view that the Coast Guard had failed to keep its people safe and accountable.

    They were told leadership training was delivered too late or not at all, and training specific to sexual assault and harassment was done through click-through online modules.

    “You said you could tell very quickly whether the climate at a unit was good or bad,” the letter said. “Good ones had leaders that challenged and empowered members, while bad ones allowed harmful behaviors to slide.”

    No accountability

    U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, chairman of the senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, said in a letter opening the inquiry that the leaders who “did nothing” while misconduct occurred must be held accountable.

    “It is unclear whether those responsible have continued their careers in the Coast Guard, received higher positions of authority, or left service and escaped accountability all together.”

    On Wednesday, Blumenthal in a statement said he supports efforts to change the long-standing culture of harassment, assault and abuse in the Coast Guard.

    “But the Coast Guard’s ‘Accountability’ task force did not, in fact, recommend any steps to hold accountable past perpetrators or generations of Coast Guard leaders who oversaw and enabled a culture of misconduct and cover-up,” he said. “This is unacceptable. Perpetrators must know that their actions will be punished, and survivors must know that their accounts will be taken seriously, their safety protected, and that justice will be pursued on their behalf."

    Fagan referenced ongoing investigations and said the Coast Guard “is fully committed to cooperating with these efforts and will identify any additional areas for remedial action or improvement.”

    In the final pages of the review is an acknowledgment of “anecdotal information” that commanding officers might not be reporting all instances of sexual harassment and assault that are brought to their attention.

    The report said the “extent of the non-reporting is unknown.”

    Also unknown is the “quality and consistency” of investigations by commanding officers into the cases they do report, according to the review. The authors cited more anecdotal information when they said command staff is “generally aware” about what they’re supposed to do when it comes to reporting harassment and assault cases.

    The report repeatedly cites the service’s core values of honor, respect and devotion to duty.

    “In some places in our Coast Guard, there is currently a disconnect between the workplace experience we talk about, and the experiences our people are actually having,” Fagan wrote.

    Changes at the academy

    Fagan’s orders specific to the academy include improved oversight of the cadets by staff members and of staff members by the school’s governing boards. The academy superintendent will report to the Coast Guard vice commandant instead of a deputy under the banner of mission support.

    To address accountability across the service, Fagan also addressed the need to make sure substantiated cases of sexual harassment or assault are taken into account when determining whether a discharge is honorable or not. Other recommendations include rolling out ‘Safe-to-Report’ protections that prevent service members from being punished for minor offenses ― such as underage drinking or violating curfew ― when reporting an incident of sexual assault.

    U.S. Rep. Joe Courtney, D-2nd District, on Wednesday said he’ll continue to work with the Coast Guard on implementing the Safe-to-Report protections in the upcoming budget.

    “Admiral Fagan’s release of the Accountability and Transparency Review represents a healthy course correction for the Coast Guard in dealing with this persistent problem affecting the service,” he said. “This clearly demonstrates a fundamental change in leadership, and I strongly support the Commandant’s vision for how the service prevents and responds to incidents of sexual assault and harassment.”

    Anecdotes and numbers

    The review included data from a 2022 survey that found 14.4% of female cadets at the academy experienced unwanted sexual contact, compared to 4.3% of female active-duty Coast Guard members.

    A 2021 survey of students at the academy found 50% of those who’d experienced unwanted sexual contact had been discouraged from reporting it. The results reflected a survey the same year of active-duty Coast Guard members that found 51% of those who filed a sexual harassment complaint had been encouraged to drop the issue.

    That same year, data shows 113 sexual harassment cases were initiated. Sixty-one were substantiated, 23 were unsubstantiated and 29 cases remained open at the time of the report.

    A 2018 survey of active-duty members said 78% of Coast Guard members who were sexually assaulted chose not to report the crime for various reasons.

    “Victims are aware of the historic lack of accountability and unlikelihood of a successful prosecution of sexual assault cases,” the report said. “These may be within the Coast Guard, in other military services or in the wider community.”

    The Coast Guard’s policy on harassment, updated in February, requires commanding officers to initiate an investigation no later than 10 days after they hear about alleged harassment and to notify Coast Guard Investigative Services when the cases involve sexual harassment, sexual assault, family violence, workplace violence, hazing and threatening behavior.

    The report emphasized the need to put mental and behavioral health programs in place to address inappropriate behavior at the early stages so it doesn’t rise to the level of harassment or assault.

    The U.S. Department of Defense in 2021 required all branches – including the Coast Guard – to adopt an Integrated Primary Prevention (IPP) Policy with that goal in mind. But the review team noted the $500 million allocated for the roll out applies only to the branches under defense department jurisdiction.

    The report also called out failure among superiors to address improper conduct that does not meet the legal definition for harassment.

    The team said the Coast Guard needs to “actively prevent” a permissive environment that condones inappropriate jokes, comments and stories among some members.

    The report quoted an anonymous participant in a core values study who said respect means holding people accountable: “I think if someone's not meeting the grade, or you know their performance is suffering, it's very easy to just walk by that rather than hold them accountable. But that's how they learn and grow and get better."

    e.regan@theday.com

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