Coast Guard Commandant Testifies Before Senate Subcommittee

The U.S. Coast Guard’s handling of its own internal sexual assault and sexual harassment cases has been back in the headlines, with a whistleblower going public June 9 alleging a coverup of the agency’s Operation Fouled Anchor investigation and Commandant Linda Fagan testifying before a Senate subcommittee just two days later.

Shannon Norenberg spent 11 years as the sexual assault response coordinator (SARC) at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy. In that role, she helped guide survivors of sexual assault on what she described as “their journey back to living lives of happiness and peace.” Despite believing “this would be my life’s work and that I would work at the Academy until I retired,” Norenberg said she reached a point where she felt “morally and ethically compelled to resign from my position at the Academy.”

“The Coast Guard lied to me,” Norenberg said in a statement released through Maritime Legal Aid & Advocacy Ltd. “Worse than that, they used me to lie to victims, used me to silence victims and used me in a coordinated effort to discourage victims of sexual assault at the Academy from speaking to Congress about their assaults and about the Coast Guard’s investigation of their cases.”

Norenberg connected that effort to the alleged coverup of Operation Fouled Anchor (OFA), an internal investigation where the Coast Guard looked at 102 allegations of sexual assault between the late 1980s and 2006 at the Coast Guard Academy. The Coast Guard initiated the investigation in 2014, with a final report reached in early 2020.

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However, according to members of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, OFA “was not disclosed to Congress or otherwise made public until June 2023.” According to a September 2023 letter from the subcommittee to Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan, OFA “ultimately determined that during the years reviewed, dozens of allegations of sexual assault at the Academy—implicating 43 individuals—were not properly handled.”

In his opening remarks during the June 11 hearing, subcommittee chairman Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) shared an internal memo that listed pros and cons of making OFA public.

“In deciding to keep Operation Fouled Anchor out of the public view, the Coast Guard leaders believed, as these handwritten notes on documents obtained by this subcommittee show, that, in fact, the problem was ‘one of the past,’” Blumenthal said.

Blumenthal argued that the problem remains.

“What we know from Operation Fouled Anchor and the way that it was concealed is that our investigation has shown a deep moral rot within the Coast Guard now,” he said, “one that prioritizes cronyism over accountability, silence over survivors. And the whistleblowers who came to us just six months ago and testified before us describe that culture of cover up that led to their cases being dismissed or degraded or disregarded or treated as trivial administrative matters.”

In her opening statement, Fagan said the Coast Guard is striving to provide members the “workplace culture they expect and deserve.”

Operation Fouled Anchor, Fagan said, “began to reveal that in some places throughout our service, we failed to ensure a culture that is safe for all, where every member feels connected, supported and free from harm.”

Fagan admitted that she’s heard people “in and out of government” state that “this kind of thing happens all across society.”

“And my response to that is it is unacceptable,” Fagan said. “Not in my Coast Guard. Sexual assault and sexual harassment are crimes that harm our members, and it is not who we are.”

Fagan further acknowledged the error of the Coast Guard withholding Operation Fouled Anchor from members of Congress and the public.

“Our failure to share the report with Congress was a mistake that prevented appropriate oversight and further eroded trust,” she said. “This subcommittee and others, as well as the inspector general, are investigating the Coast Guard’s handling of the report. We continue to cooperate with these investigations. We’ve devoted significant resources and have been fully responsive to the subcommittee.”

Fagan drew the ire of Blumenthal and ranking member Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) for the agency’s responsiveness to record requests. Fagan said the Coast Guard “conducted the broadest possible sweep of records, reviewing nearly 2 million pages, and all responsive documents have been provided to this committee.”

Johnson, in his opening statements, flipped through a packet of documents, much of which had been redacted prior to delivery. He also questioned why the Coast Guard had failed to provide the initial OFA report, which was 11 pages, rather than just the six-page final report.

“When can we expect to see the original draft, the 11-page initial draft, of the report?” Johnson said.

“I continue to work with my general counsel and am taking advice with regard to—” Fagan began.

“What excuse would be given to not turn over the initial draft of the report, if you want to be fully transparent?” Johnson asked.

“I continue to work in good faith with the committee to provide documents and will provide—” Fagan said.

“Good faith is always the excuse you hear,” Johnson said.

Blumenthal criticized the Coast Guard for a June 10 “document dump” that afforded little time for review.

“I refer to it as a document dump because 1,000 pages of documents were provided in a form that is very difficult to decipher and interpret,” he said.

When asked about publicizing an ongoing inspector general investigation, Fagan said she was committed to the process.

“I commit to continuing to support and work with the IG process and then will divulge information to the fullest extent that I am allowed—” she began.

“You can’t commit to making anything public right now?” Blumenthal said.

“I’m working in full support of the IG committee,” Fagan said. “I want that information. I want those insights. I want it to be public.”

Fagan later admitted she had not yet read Norenberg’s statement. Blumenthal challenged Fagan to not only read it but to meet with Norenberg as well.

“And as I said before, what’s required of the Coast Guard at this moment is an unsparing commitment to truth telling,” he said. “Following the facts and the evidence wherever they lead, even if they are embarrassing to former members of Coast Guard or present members. That is what serves the interests of the nation as well as the Coast Guard.”