How the CNN investigation into the Coast Guard Academy cover-up came about

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It’s been nearly a year since CNN first reported on a cover-up at the Coast Guard Academy.

The first report on how the Academy kept secret its own investigation into decades-long sexual assault cover-ups still resonates.

This week, Shannon Norenberg, a Coast Guard Academy official in charge of sexual assault prevention, resigned in protest, saying the Coast Guard had made her an unwitting accomplice in a cover-up.

“I can no longer in good conscience be part of an organization that betrays me, victims of sexual assault, and the system I helped build to hold perpetrators accountable at the Academy,” Norenberg said in a statement. Watch her appearance on “Anderson Cooper 360°.”

Separately, The Coast Guard’s first female commandant, Admiral Linda Fagan, is scheduled to testify about the scandal on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, where she will face tough questions about why current or former leaders have not been held accountable for covering up wrongdoing.

How does investigative journalism like this come about? It required a team of journalists from CNN Investigates, including Melanie Hicken, Blake Ellis, Audrey Ash, Curt Devine and Pamela Brown. I emailed with Hicken and Ellis, reporters who have been working on this story from the beginning. Our conversation is below.

WOLF: You’ve been following the Coast Guard for some time. What was the first thread you drew from it and how did things develop?

HICKEN and ELLIS: Our coverage of the Coast Guard began with a young woman named Hope Hicks, studying at another military academy, the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy, who wrote an anonymous blog post about being raped at sea by her boss – sparking a reckoning in the commercial shipping industry.

As we looked into her case, we became fascinated with this little-known industry. We spent months speaking with merchant seamen who had been assaulted while working on merchant ships and learned more about how the justice system works in the merchant shipping industry. Eventually, we discovered that a number of sexual assaults went unpunished and that all of this was happening under the watch of the Coast Guard. That was the turning point when we began to turn our attention to the Coast Guard.

It was only because of this initial reporting by the Coast Guard and the maritime industry that we were finally able to break the news of the fouled anchor scandal. It took months to build the trust of sources, obtain key documents, and conduct sensitive interviews with victims.

04:27 – Source: CNN

She accused her boss of rape. One year later, no solution

WOLF: A central part of the story is Operation Fouled Anchor, the secret internal investigation into cover-ups. Did the Coast Guard admit to a cover-up?

HICKEN and ELLIS: The reporting of this story was so interesting because Fouled Anchor was ultimately just a cover-up of past cover-ups. The internal investigation confirmed years of sexual assault at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and revealed how victims’ complaints were ignored and sometimes even covered up – allowing some perpetrators to rise to high positions in the Coast Guard and other branches of the military.

Through our reporting, we learned that although there were originally plans to give Congress a clean bill of health about the Despite the reporting and the damaging results, Coast Guard leadership ultimately decided to sweep the matter under the rug – and even went so far as to create a list of the pros and cons of making it public.

The current head of the Coast Guard has apologized to staff and Congress, but avoided calling the suppression of the fouled anchor investigation a cover-up.

WOLF: Have there been any follow-up investigations into some of these attacks from years ago?

HICKEN and ELLIS: Operation Fouled Anchor itself was launched in 2014 to investigate these earlier assaults, when an academy graduate claimed her rape allegations from years ago were never investigated and her attacker had since become a high-ranking Air Force officer. Despite credible evidence of assaults dating back to the late 1980s, Fouled Anchor investigators found that most of the alleged perpetrators were not criminally investigated at the time.

Yet even after cases were reopened during Fouled Anchor, few of the alleged perpetrators were brought to justice. The attacker in the case that launched Fouled Anchor was the only one charged in a military court during the investigation, but an appeals court ultimately ruled in his favor and dismissed the charges. It said the military missed its deadline to prosecute because the Coast Guard waited nearly two decades to investigate the victim’s allegations.

We learned that two other defendants were discreetly pressured to transfer their Coast Guard duties. However, there were nearly 40 cases where the Coast Guard no longer had jurisdiction over the alleged attackers and the local and federal criminal statutes had long since expired, so no action was taken at all.

As for current events, we know that the Coast Guard is currently investigating an officer who reported and sexually assaulted a female cadet at the Coast Guard Academy two decades ago. The officer’s attorney denies the allegations.

The former cadet raised the allegations during a congressional hearing last year, but the Coast Guard did not launch a criminal investigation until months later, after the woman said she had put his name on a senator’s promotion list.

Another woman has asked Congress to reopen her 2005 rape case. The Coast Guard claims it cannot pursue the case, even though it was determined at the time that the defendant had “consensual” sex with her, because he is not currently under Coast Guard jurisdiction.

WOLF: There is a hearing in Congress this week. Shannon Norenberg resigned in protest. Have those responsible at the Coast Guard Academy or the Coast Guard been held accountable yet?

HICKEN and ELLIS: It sounds like the current head of the Coast Guard, Adm. Linda Fagan, will face a lot of tough questions at the hearing. So far, she has wanted the agency to focus on the future and make policy changes that she hopes will help prevent sexual assault and better support victims.

But two things are of great concern to many members of the Coast Guard: First, those responsible for the cover-up of Operation Fouled Anchor have not been held accountable to this day, and second, Fagan fails to recognize how serious the problem of sexual assault in the Coast Guard still is today.

Shannon Norenberg was angry that she was used as part of a “cruel cover-up” that deceived both victims and Congress. But at the same time, she is frustrated that nothing has changed at the Coast Guard Academy. In her opinion, perpetrators are still rarely held accountable.

WOLF: After covering this for so long, what is it about the Coast Guard Academy that has created this kind of cover-up culture? Is this a problem specific to the Coast Guard or the Academy?

HICKEN and ELLIS: Many of the problems we observed at the Coast Guard Academy and in the Coast Guard generally, such as fear of retaliation for reporting abuses, lack of accountability for alleged perpetrators, and a boys’ club culture, were very similar to what we heard from the U.S. Merchant Marine Academy community when we began this reporting several years ago.

We have also heard from sexual assault survivors from all branches of the military who argue that our country has a long way to go in combating sexual assault in the military and restoring the integrity of survivors.

Some in the organization also told us that because the Coast Guard is not under the Department of Defense like the other branches of the military, it has not faced the same scrutiny in the past. Many are hoping that may change when people who have been afraid to speak out finally feel they can.

WOLF: At the end of your stories you give your email addresses and ask for research tips. Do they ever become stories?

HICKEN and ELLIS: Yes! We have received so much helpful information through tips in response to our stories, and many of the victims of sexual assault we have spoken to in the course of our reporting originally contacted us through our tips email ([email protected]).

Many current and former Coast Guard employees have also provided us with anonymous information that has significantly enriched our reporting and led to numerous follow-up reports.

We’re always looking for new story ideas and many of our previous investigations are based on tips from readers, so emails are welcome!