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    Saturday, July 13, 2024

    Blumenthal leads grilling of Coast Guard commandant over response to sexual assaults

    Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan testifies during a Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs subcommittee oversight hearing on sexual assaults in the Coast Guard on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, June 11, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib)

    U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., led a withering interrogation of the U.S. Coast Guard’s top-ranking official Tuesday, charging the Coast Guard has failed to adequately respond to questions about its decision to withhold a 2020 report about an internal investigation of decades of sexual misconduct at the Coast Guard Academy.

    In a 90-minute takedown aired by C-SPAN, Blumenthal and other members of the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs’ Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations grilled Adm. Linda Fagan, the Coast Guard commandant, over the service’s mishandling of the so-called “Operation Fouled Anchor” report.

    When the subcommittee launched a probe of the cover-up last September, the Coast Guard led it to believe the problem of sexual assaults in the Coast Guard were a thing of the past and that Coast Guard officials would fully cooperate with the panel’s investigation of the matter, Blumenthal said.

    “Unfortunately, we have found the opposite to be true,” he said.

    Blumenthal, the subcommittee chairman, said the panel has received reports in just the last few months from nearly 40 whistleblowers who attested to an ongoing problem while the Coast Guard has failed to produce ― in unredacted form ― all the documents requested by the panel.

    He cited the story of Shannon Norenberg, a whistleblower who went public this week, saying she resigned last month as the academy’s sexual assault response coordinator after learning the Coast Guard had used her to lie to sexual-assault victims as part of the cover-up.

    “I don’t think in my 13 years in the United States Senate and 25 years in law enforcement I have seen a statement as concisely damning as the one Ms. Norenberg sent us,” Blumenthal said.

    Fagan said she was unfamiliar with Norenberg’s specific allegations, including Norenberg’s claim that Coast Guard officials denied sexual-assault victims the opportunity to sign forms necessary for them to gain access to treatment for trauma.

    Asked what she’s going to do about it, Fagan said that when an ongoing investigation by the Office of the Inspector General is completed, she will ensure all victims have access to benefits.

    In meantime, Blumenthal said, victims will continue to be denied benefits, a circumstance he said he finds “untenable.”

    Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., the subcommittee’s ranking member, asked Fagan why the Coast Guard has yet to supply the panel with all documents the service has deemed relevant to the panel’s investigation. Fagan said nearly 2 million pages initially were determined to be potentially relevant and that about 18,000 pages have been turned over.

    Johnson focused on a missing 11-page draft of the final “Operation Fouled Anchor” report, which was six pages. What, he wondered, was in the five pages removed from the draft?

    “When can we see it?” he said. “What’s the excuse for not turning over the first draft?”

    Fagan said she had not read the draft and that subcommittee members were welcome to immediately view it, as well as any other documents, “in camera,” meaning in private, without the benefit of note-taking.

    Sen. Maggie Hassan, D-N.H., a subcommittee member, questioned Fagan about Coast Guard leadership’s move this spring to squelch video interviews with sexual-assault victims that were belatedly posted online after an internal memo about leadership’s concerns was leaked.

    Hassan said the incident showed leadership was still unwilling to confront the service’s sexual-assault problem.

    “I’m not afraid of victims’ stories being shared,” Fagan said.

    When Blumenthal asked whether any sexual-assault perpetrators have been disciplined, if only by reductions in pay or rank, Fagan said she was awaiting the results of the inspector general’s investigation.

    “But an IG’s report can be kept confidential,” Blumenthal said. “You have no active investigation of your own?”

    Fagan said $1.5 million has been set aside for a third-party investigation that has yet to begin.

    “Can you commit to making it public?” Blumenthal asked.

    “I want it to be public,” Fagan said.

    In a dramatic turn near the end of the hearing, Blumenthal pressed Fagan about accountability regarding the withholding of the “Operation Fouled Anchor” report, a decision he said was solely motivated by a desire to avoid embarrassment.

    Fagan, who did not hold a command position at the time, would not say whether her predecessor as commandant, then-Adm. Karl Schultz, or anyone else made the decision.

    “I remain committed to the process,” she said.

    b.hallenbeck@theday.com

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