'The Coast Guard Lied to Me': Official in Charge of Sexual Assault Response at Coast Guard Academy Resigns

The U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn.
The U.S. Coast Guard Academy in New London, Conn., May 2, 2012. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 2nd Class Lauren Laughlin)

The official in charge of sexual assault response at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy resigned last weekend ahead of a Senate oversight committee hearing Tuesday on a sexual assault scandal at the 148-year old school, saying the service betrayed her, "betrayed victims and betrayed the system" by failing to hold perpetrators accountable.

Shannon Norenberg, who had served as the sexual assault response coordinator at the Coast Guard Academy since 2013, detailed the reasons for her resignation in a blog post that described the process for investigating sexual assaults at the school that occurred decades earlier, and Coast Guard leadership's subsequent efforts to hide the incidents and the investigation from Congress.

Norenberg, an Army veteran who previously worked as a sexual assault response coordinator for the Marine Corps, said Coast Guard leaders gave her scripts to interview victims, which she said made her believe she was helping not only the investigation but the victims in receiving benefits.

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Instead, she said, the effort was designed to mislead them.

"The Coast Guard lied to me. 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," Norenberg wrote in her post Sunday.

The Coast Guard is a year into a scandal that rocked it after an extensive investigation by CNN found the service conducted a multiyear probe into dozens of sexual assaults at the academy and went to great lengths to cover up the results.

Subsequent documents released by the Coast Guard to Congress cited 51 cases of sexual assault, although Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., has said 102 cases of rape or sexual assault from 1988 through 2006 were investigated, with 43 alleged perpetrators and 63 victims.

During a hearing before the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on Tuesday, Coast Guard Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan told members she had not read Norenberg's statement nor had she reviewed an early version of the investigation into the academy assaults, known as Operation Fouled Anchor.

Fagan said a Homeland Security Office of Inspector General investigation into the cover-up was ongoing and she was constrained from answering many of the questions thoroughly because of it.

She told committee members that she was unaware of whether any officers had been disciplined for any retaliation against whistleblowers or victims and would rely on the IG investigation to guide future actions.

"I know I keep talking about the IG investigation, but as that concludes, that will provide insights into whether non-criminal misconduct occurred or not, and then we'll work to create what accountability, transparency, what are the administrative tools there" to take action, Fagan said.

Following the CNN reports, Fagan initiated a review of the assaults and Operation Fouled Anchor and pledged to increase oversight, be more transparent, and create a "culture of respect."

But over the past several months, the Coast Guard has continued to face questions over its handling of recent allegations of sexual assault and its approach to helping victims.

In April, senior leaders below Fagan decided to withhold videos made by sexual assault survivors as part of a sexual assault awareness month initiative because, according to an internal memo, they thought the stories would perpetuate an idea that the Coast Guard is in an "assault crisis."

The videos were posted the following month.

And in May, an email was sent to Fagan and most members of the service alleging that a sector commander in the Coast Guard's Eighth District sat on allegations of sexual assault in his unit and condoned retaliation by subordinates against victims.

During the hearing, Blumenthal described the email as "highly inflammatory" but said the underlying incident, which took place in the past few years, had been confirmed by the service.

"That was just a couple of months ago," Blumenthal said. "This situation demands unsparing truth-telling, following the evidence where it leads, and being willing to face that truth, even though it may be embarrassing to friends, colleagues, predecessors and current leadership."

To date, no one involved in the Operation Fouled Anchor investigation, the cover-up or subsequent incidents has been disciplined, although retired Coast Guard Capt. Glenn Sulmasy resigned as president of Nichols College last year after he was accused of inappropriate communications with students while he was on the faculty at the Coast Guard Academy a decade ago.

Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., said the Coast Guard's response to congressional oversight in this issue was a master class in obfuscation, given the service's reluctance to hand over important documents or providing them with heavy redaction or requiring congressional staff to review them in person without a camera or taking notes.

The night before the hearing, the Coast Guard dumped thousands of documents on committee staff, many of them highly redacted, said both Blumenthal and Johnson.

"You almost think that they must provide conferences or workshops for members of the executive branch on how to avoid complying with congressional oversight requests. It's the exact same runaround: 'We're going to take it seriously. We're going to be fully transparent. We're going to come clean. Wait, we can't show you that,'" Johnson said.

In her resignation letter, Norenberg said that as SAPR, she was unaware of incidents of sexual assault at the school that occurred before she arrived and was not told of the ongoing investigation. She said she was contacted in 2018 by Coast Guard Headquarters officials who said she would be calling victims to arrange in-person interviews as part of an "apology tour."

But the word "apology" was never used. Instead, she was to offer an "official expression of regret."

She also was to update the victims on the investigation and offer services to help them heal, including, if they needed, a form they could fill out that would help them access health care and services from the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Just before her first meeting, Norenberg learned she would not be offering the forms.

She later concluded that the reason the Coast Guard decided against offering the forms is that it would lead to a spike in the number of sexual assault reports filed at the academy, which would raise suspicion.

"The inevitable result would have been Operation Fouled Anchor being discovered by Congress. To prevent Operation Fouled Anchor from being discovered by Congress, Coast Guard leaders deliberately withheld VA military sexual trauma benefits and services from the survivors we were sent around to meet with. Worse, we offered them absolutely nothing to replace those lost benefits and services. We just left the victims to fend for themselves," she wrote.

Norenberg said she was stunned when she read the reports about the cover-up and concealment of Operation Fouled Anchor.

"We weren't sent out there to help these people, I realized. We were sent out there as part of an elaborate cover-up of Operation Fouled Anchor designed to hide the existence of the investigation from Congress and the public," she said.

Although Fagan said she had not read Norenberg's resignation letter, she lauded her as making an "incredible difference" at the Coast Guard Academy.

Throughout the hearing, Fagan said she is working to turn the culture of the service around.

"Every expert we've consulted cautioned that culture change is not easy and it is not quick, but it is critical that we undertake this, and it's critical to our success as a service organization," Fagan said.

Blumenthal said he found the denial of forms to victims that would have enabled them to access VA benefits "the most damning parts" of Norenberg's letter.

"If the document is unsigned, they can't access the benefits. If they're denied the opportunity to sign that document, not only are they victims of assault and survivors, but they are prevented from accessing the health care they need to deal with the trauma and other medical problems," Blumenthal said. "I find that absolutely untenable and intolerable."

Related: 'Culture of Cover-Up:' Senators Ratchet Up Pressure on Coast Guard After It Hid Report on Rapes, Sexual Assaults

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