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Coast Guard lied to cover up sexual assault investigation, whistleblower says

An official at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London says the Coast Guard lied to her and victims of sexual assault when it denied new allegations of a cover-up in the investigation known as Operation Fouled Anchor.

This led to Shannon Norenberg’s decision to resign from her position as the Military Academy’s Sexual Assault Response Coordinator – a job she had held since 2013 – and speak out about her unintended role in the investigation and the Coast Guard’s failure to disclose the information to Congress.

Her story will lead to a new investigation of the Coast Guard ahead of a key hearing with Commandant Linda Fagan. On Tuesday, Fagan will testify for the first time in nearly a year, this time before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, chaired by U.S. Senator Richard Blumenthal, Democrat of Connecticut. As the only witness, lawmakers are expected to question her about Fouled Anchor and the Coast Guard’s current handling of reports of sexual misconduct within the academy and the service.

Norenberg’s claims are part of a lengthy public statement released late Sunday, detailing how she was tasked with reaching out to victims when Fouled Anchor was still underway, but that she felt she couldn’t provide them with the resources they needed – and that she received arguments with false information.

As a survivor of sexual violence, she believed her work would provide victims with “a legitimate path to accountability and recovery.” But after the CNN report on Fouled Anchor last summer, she began revisiting that era and found old records about it a few weeks ago.

Norenberg claims the Coast Guard lied to her and “used me to lie to victims” and “used me in a coordinated effort to prevent victims of sexual assault at the academy from speaking to Congress.”

“We were not sent there to help these people, I realized. We were sent there to conduct an elaborate cover-up of Operation Fouled Anchor, with the goal of hiding the existence of the investigation from Congress and the public,” Norenberg said in the statement. “The whole thing was a cruel cover-up at the expense of the victims, with the sole goal of preserving the Coast Guard’s image and avoiding scandal. And the Coast Guard used me as part of their plan.”

“The Coast Guard lied to me”

Norenberg said she learned about Operation Fouled Anchor when she was flown in for a meeting at Coast Guard headquarters in Washington, DC, in late 2018.

At that meeting, she said, she was briefed on the details of the investigation, which had been underway for four years at the time. As the academy’s sexual assault response coordinator, she entered names into the case management system used across the armed forces, called the Defense Sexual Assault Incident Database. She said she was never asked to enter names discovered through Fouled Anchor into the system.

Norenberg said she was asked to call victims who had already been interviewed during Fouled Anchor to try to arrange in-person visits, which she described as an “apology tour.” In her statement, she provided a photo of guidelines for handling phone calls and a list of talking points for her trips to meet with the victims. Norenberg said she traveled with a Coast Guard attorney and an agent from the Coast Guard Investigative Service for several months in 2019.

“I was told it would be a type of ‘apology tour’ where we would personally apologize to the victims for what happened to them, inform them of the outcome of their cases, offer them closure and provide them with services to help them heal,” she wrote. “However, apology was not the term the Coast Guard used. Instead, we were to offer victims an ‘official expression of remorse.'”

In the statement, Norenberg included a list of talking points on one of the most frequently asked questions from the victims they spoke with: “Will anyone be held accountable?” The recommended answers were that no criminal action was possible and the only option was personnel action. They also suggested making a “general statement that the actions of academy officials from this era will be reviewed.”

For those visits, Norenberg said she was initially told to give them CG-6095 forms, which are the official way to report sexual misconduct and would allow them to more easily access U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs services related to sexual trauma in the military. But she was later told they did not offer them.

She said if victims had signed and submitted those forms, Norenberg would have been required to enter them into DSAID’s case management system and Congress would have ultimately taken note of the increase in reports.

Other talking points included telling victims that Congress and the Department of Homeland Security were “informed of the general course of the investigation, the findings, and the decisions made.” But Congress did not learn of Fouled Anchor’s existence until years later, in 2023.

“The inevitable result would have been that Operation Fouled Anchor would have been discovered by Congress. To prevent Operation Fouled Anchor from being discovered by Congress, Coast Guard leaders intentionally denied the survivors we sent to meetings benefits and services for victims of sexual trauma in the military,” Norenberg said. “Worse, we offered them absolutely nothing to replace those lost benefits and services. We simply left the victims to fend for themselves.”

In the post, Norenberg apologized to victims of sexual assault at the academy and posted a video to a YouTube channel where she will feature stories from survivors. She is also launching a nonprofit organization that will provide legal help to victims of sexual trauma in the military.

The Coast Guard did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the allegations related to Operation Fouled Anchor and Norenberg’s public statement.

Upcoming Coast Guard Oversight Hearing

On Tuesday, Fagan will testify before Congress for the first time in nearly a year. Several congressional committees, as well as the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General, have launched investigations since CNN reported on the existence of Fouled Anchor.

In testimony before Congress last summer, Fagan apologized for the Coast Guard’s inaction and failure to disclose to Congress. She recently announced a 90-day internal investigation that will address the culture problems within the Coast Guard and its academy and proposed reforms.

Admiral Karl Schultz served as commander of Operation Fouled Anchor from 2018 to 2022, during which time it ran and ended. Fagan took the helm in June 2022. She told Congress last year that she was generally aware of the investigation but did not become aware of the full scope of the investigation until CNN began asking questions.

“As the Commandant testified, we regret not providing Congress with the 2020 report on the investigations into past sexual misconduct at the Coast Guard Academy. Congressional and Inspector General investigations into the Coast Guard’s handling of the investigations and report are ongoing, and the Commandant remains committed to transparency and cooperation in those investigations,” a Coast Guard spokesperson said in a statement in February.

Blumenthal’s committee has requested internal documents and statements from officials, but has received only a portion of the documents, and many of them are redacted or duplicates.

Some of the documents released earlier this year shed light on the behind-the-scenes decisions that led to the results not being disclosed to Congress for years.

The 25-page documents from 2018 included discussions about whether Congress should be informed of the existence of Fouled Anchor, a plan to provide recovery services to victims and timelines for the investigation.

The documents included handwritten notes, such as a pros and cons list about whether Congress should be briefed. The senators’ email mentions Coast Guard confirmation that they were written by then-Vice Commandant Admiral Charles Ray.

Since the revelations of the Fouled Anchor case, former and current cadets have testified before Blumenthal’s panel about their experiences reporting sexual harassment and assault during their time at the New London Academy, calling it a “destructive pattern” within the Coast Guard.

“My experiences are not isolated. There are hundreds of similar stories within the academy and across the fleet involving both officers and enlisted personnel,” retired Lt. Melissa McCafferty, who graduated from the academy in 2011, said at the December hearing. “As a result, there is a destructive pattern of sexual assault, harassment, abuse, bullying, intimidation and retaliation. It is insidious, it is pervasive and it continues to this day.”

In the six months since that hearing, Blumenthal and top Republican Rep. Ron Johnson of Wisconsin have expressed growing frustration at waiting for more answers from Coast Guard leadership.

“In the nearly seven months since we began our investigation, the Coast Guard’s actions seem to be explained only by its indifference or another shameful attempt to cover up the embarrassing truths about its malpractice in handling sexual assault and harassment cases,” Blumenthal and Johnson wrote in a letter to Fagan in April. “Simply put, the Coast Guard’s lack of response is in stark contrast to your past commitments to be fully transparent with Congress and the American people.”

The position of federal politics reporter for the Connecticut Mirror/Connecticut Public Radio is made possible in part by funding from the Robert and Margaret Patricelli Family Foundation.

Lisa Hagen is a reporter for The Connecticut Mirror (https://ctmirror.org/ ). Copyright 2024 © The Connecticut Mirror.