Senators Criticize Coast Guard Over Accountability for SASH Failures

Cadets at U.S. Coast Guard Academy commencement, 2003, during the time period covered by Operation Fouled Anchor (USCG file image)

Published Dec 6, 2023 10:54 PM by The Maritime Executive

The U.S. Coast Guard has released its much-anticipated new report on command climate, sexual harassment and sexual assault in the service, along with the full text of two prior reports that were long kept under wraps. 

The new Accountability and Transparency Review study was ordered by Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan after a series of damaging news reports on sexual assault at the Coast Guard Academy (first reported by CNN). The study begins with an apology for past failures. "The Coast Guard failed to live up to its Core Values by lacking the programs to prevent military sexual trauma and improperly supporting victims in the aftermath," the review team wrote. "For so many victims, there are even deeper levels of broken trust: in leaders who failed them in preventing and responding to sexual violence; in a military justice system with antiquated legal definitions of rape; in non-existent support programs for those impacted prior to 2000."

The new report notes that reported sexual assault and sexual harassment cases remain at a sustained level of about 200-250 incidents per year across the service, despite policy changes, and that "too many Coast Guard members are not experiencing the safe, empowering workplace they expect." Further, fewer and fewer female Coast Guard servicembers say that they trust in the military system to protect them if they are harmed (about half, down from 70 percent a decade ago). 

The report includes 100 pages of research and recommendations for change going forward, but victims' advocates noted that the contents do not incorporate accountability actions for past abuses or management oversights. 

"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," said Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Connecticut) in a statement. "This is unacceptable. Perpetrators must know that their actions will be punished, and survivors must know that . . . justice will be pursued on their behalf."

"A report is nothing more than paper until concrete steps are taken," added fellow Connecticut Senator Chris Murphy. “This new report still does not hold anyone accountable for past failures—particularly those at the Coast Guard Academy."

Only one top official has experienced fallout from the recent revelations - Adm. Charles Ray (ret'd), who served as vice commandant from 2018-2021. Along with then-Commandant Adm. Karl Schultz, Adm. Ray had responsibility for the disposition of Operation Fouled Anchor, an investigation detailing years of mishandling of sexual assault cases at the Coast Guard Academy. The operation's final report was shelved, and Congress was not briefed on its findings. After its contents were reported by CNN earlier this year, Adm. Ray resigned from a post at a Coast Guard Academy leadership think tank. Other leaders who came into contact with Operation Fouled Anchor have not faced public repercussions. 

In a set of orders attached to the new study, Adm. Fagan laid out a range of policy changes, training initiatives and organizational changes to address sexual assault and harassment. However, she acknowledged that her policy directive "will not address historical cases from Operation Fouled Anchor."

The directive does include a review of the service's policy for determining pay grade on retirement, including criteria for weighing past offenses and reopening grade determinations for retired officers - one of the few means of penalizing former leaders for misconduct after they leave the service. 

The Department of Homeland Security's inspector general is also conducting an independent investigation into the handling of Operation Fouled Anchor, and Fagan said that her office will cooperate fully. 

"There is currently a disconnect between the workplace experience we talk about, and the experiences our people are actually having,” wrote Adm. Fagan in an all-hands memo Wednesday. “Any disconnect between the core values we revere and the actual experience of each member of our workforce harms our people, erodes trust, and undermines our readiness to execute our missions.”