Sexual Assaults Cover-up at U.S. Coast Guard: An Overview

On Behalf of | June 20, 2024 | Sexual Violence & Victims' Rights, Victims' Rights

By Christine Dunn, Jillian Seymour, and Erin Simard

In the summer of 2023, CNN published an explosive exposé of the Coast Guard’s orchestrated cover-up of “Operation Fouled Anchor” – a report detailing decades of rampant sexual assaults at the Academy and the failure to adequately investigate the assaults. As detailed by CNN, Coast Guard leaders deliberately withheld the findings of Operation Fouled Anchor from both Congress and the public.

Operation Fouled Anchor Overview

Operation Fouled Anchor began in 2014, when the Coast Guard Investigative Service (“CGIS”) launched an in-depth investigation of sexual misconduct within the Coast Guard Academy, going back to the 1980s. The investigation initially focused on a Coast Guard officer’s claim that leaders had silenced her after she was raped at the Academy. Investigators later discovered numerous similar accounts from other former cadets.

CGIS found that Coast Guard officials had shown a “disturbing pattern of conducting administrative investigations and/or initiating disenrollment for sexual misconduct instead of referring the matter for criminal investigation.” Furthermore, CGIS’s final report concluded that the Academy “did not adequately investigate allegations as serious criminal matters and hold perpetrators appropriately accountable.”

At the conclusion of the Operation Fouled Anchor investigation, Coast Guard officials engineered a calculated plan to keep hidden the investigation’s findings. Internally, Coast Guard leaders expressed fear of Congressional and public scrutiny into its “suggested malfeasance.” Coast Guard leaders even went so far as to create a “pros and cons” list to decide whether to share the truth with Congress and the public. Ultimately, the cons prevailed, and Operation Fouled Anchor remained hidden.

Rather than disclose the report to Congress, Coast Guard leadership then quietly embarked on an “apology tour,” meeting with victims whose cases were detailed in the Operation Fouled Anchor report. While the stated purpose of the tour was to provide closure and support for the victims, the tour devolved into yet another effort to keep survivors quiet.

Whistleblower Shannon Norenberg Statement Overview

Shannon Norenberg, who served as the Sexual Assault Response Coordinator at the Coast Guard Academy for 12 years, was tasked with meeting survivors on the apology tour. Ms. Norenberg is herself is a survivor of sexual assault. She was delighted by the opportunity to provide other survivors with some measure of justice.

However, as Ms. Norenberg bravely revealed to CNN, the Coast Guard did not ultimately use their apology tour to provide support to survivors. Instead, the Coast Guard took the opportunity to ensure that the misconduct they had uncovered in the report remained confidential.

Ms. Norenberg shared in a letter to the public that the Coast Guard required survivors to sign non-disclosure agreements to cripple their ability to speak about the abuse and harassment they experienced. Additionally, while the Coast Guard initially feigned interest in offering survivors an opportunity to formally report the abuse, Coast Guard leaders eventually made the deliberate decision to withhold such an opportunity from survivors.

By refusing to allow survivors to report the sexual assault they experienced, the Coast Guard sought to conceal the prolificacy of sexual abuse within the Academy along with its multi-decade cover-up. Failing to provide survivors with the opportunity to report had the added effect of denying survivors the justice they deserved and hindering their access to mental health and trauma care through the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Ultimately, the Coast Guard undertook neither legal nor disciplinary action to punish the assailants identified in the Operation Fouled Anchor report. Meanwhile, the Coast Guard forced survivors to stay silent after reliving their trauma. Finally, during the apology tour, Coast Guard officials intentionally lied to victims, falsely telling them that the Operation Fouled Anchor report had been shared with Congress and that Congress was aware of the prevalence of sexual assault in the Academy.

Senate Investigation Hearing

As news of the Coast Guard’s “culture of coverup” has emerged, survivors and congress members have expressed outrage at the systematic silencing of survivors by the Coast Guard.

In June of 2024, the Senate heard testimony from Coast Guard Commandant Linda Fagan. Having previously evaded appearing, Admiral Fagan appeared only after Congress threatened her with a subpoena. At the hearing, senators grilled Admiral Fagan, demanding answers for the Coast Guard’s overwhelming reluctance to cooperate with Congress’s ongoing investigation into not only Operation Fouled Anchor but the Academy’s overall history of mishandling reports of sexual misconduct. As Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut stated during the hearing, “This situation demands unsparing truth-telling.”

Yet, despite her congressional directive to testify with comprehensive truth, Admiral Fagan failed to provide concrete answers. Sanford Heisler Sharp Partner Christine Dunn, who attended the hearing and represents several Coast Guard Academy survivors in civil lawsuits, stated that Admiral Fagan’s testimony instead amounted to “platitudes with no real substance or plan to give justice to survivors.”

Though Admiral Fagan repeatedly emphasized the Coast Guard’s evident need for “transparency and accountability” to reform their “culture,” she ultimately dodged accountability for the role she plays in seeing this change come to fruition.

Prolificacy of Sexual Abuse in USCGA and USCG

When institutions conceal sexual misconduct and prevent survivors from seeking redress, survivors endure additional harm while institutions evade accountability.

Congressional oversight does play a critical role in shining the light on the Coast Guard Academy’s systemic abuse of power, as Congress’s mandate to oversee the Coast Guard holds them responsible for correcting any misconduct in the Coast Guard on a large scale. However, the judicial system also serves an important role in holding the Coast Guard accountable, as it allows individuals harmed by any misconduct to pursue reparations personally and on their own terms.

Our Legal Advocacy for Military Sexual Assault Survivors

Sanford Heisler Sharp has represented numerous survivors of maritime and military sexual assault. In 2022, Christine Dunn, Co-Chair of Sanford Heisler Sharp‘s Sexual Violence, Title IX, and Victims’ Rights Practice Group, filed a lawsuit on behalf of Midshipman-X, a U.S. Merchant Marine Academy student who was raped by her supervisor aboard a commercial ship. As reported by CNN, the harrowing account of the student catalyzed the publication’s investigation into the prevalence of maritime sexual assault, leading to the discovery of the Fouled Anchor scandal. In a separate case of military sexual assault, Sanford Heisler Sharp is representing over a dozen Army servicemen who were allegedly sexually abused by Army doctor Michael Stockin in the course of purported medical examinations.

Christine is committed to helping our brave service members obtain justice. She believes that fighting for justice is especially important where, as is frequently the case in military sexual abuse cases, institutions fail to protect those who protect our nation, when claims and even evidence of sexual abuse by those in power have been reported and not acted upon. In the case of the U.S. Coast Guard Academy and USCG, this failure was compounded by a profound abuse of power in a deliberate coverup and denial of care and benefits to victims.

If you or someone you know has been affected by sexual misconduct while at the Coast Guard Academy, please contact us via email at [email protected].