How CNN’s Coast Guard Academy cover-up investigation came together

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It was nearly a year ago that CNN first reported about a cover-up at the Coast Guard Academy.

That initial report about how the academy kept secret its own review of decades of sexual assault cover-ups continues to reverberate.

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

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

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

How does investigative reporting like this come to be? It took 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 since the beginning. Our conversation is below.

WOLF: You’ve been covering this Coast Guard story for some time. What was the first thread you pulled on it, and how has it unraveled?

HICKEN and ELLIS: Our Coast Guard reporting all started with a young woman named Hope Hicks who was a student at a different service academy, the US Merchant Marine Academy. In an anonymous blog post, she wrote about how she had been raped by her boss while out at sea – prompting a reckoning in the commercial shipping industry.

As we started digging into her case, we became fascinated by this little-known industry. We spent months talking to merchant mariners who were assaulted while working on commercial ships and learned more about how the justice process works in the commercial shipping world – ultimately discovering that a number of sexual assaults were going unpunished and that it was all happening under the Coast Guard’s watch. So, that was the turning point where we started turning our attention to the Coast Guard.

It is only because of this initial reporting on the Coast Guard and the maritime industry that we were able to ultimately break the news of the Fouled Anchor scandal. It took months to develop the trust of sources, obtain key records and conduct sensitive interviews with victims.

WOLF: A key part of the story is Operation Fouled Anchor, the secret internal probe of cover-ups. Has the Coast Guard acknowledged a cover-up? 

HICKEN and ELLIS: Reporting on this story has been so interesting because Fouled Anchor essentially ended up being a cover-up of past cover-ups. The internal probe substantiated years of sexual assault at the US Coast Guard Academy and revealed how victims’ complaints were ignored and, at times, covered up – allowing some offenders to rise to high-level positions in the Coast Guard and other military branches.

Through our reporting, we learned that while there were originally plans to come clean to Congress about the reporting and its damning findings, Coast Guard leaders ultimately chose to bury it – even going so far as to make a list of pros and cons of disclosure.

The Coast Guard’s current leader has apologized to the workforce and Congress but has been careful to avoid calling the suppression of the Fouled Anchor investigation a cover-up.

WOLF: Has there been any follow-up to look at some of those assaults from years ago?

HICKEN and ELLIS: Operation Fouled Anchor itself was launched in 2014 to look at those earlier assaults when an academy graduate claimed that her allegations of rape from years earlier had never been investigated and her attacker had gone on to become a top officer in the Air Force. 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.

Even after the cases were reopened during Fouled Anchor however, few alleged perpetrators were held accountable. The assailant in the case that started Fouled Anchor was the only person to face criminal charges in military court as a result of the probe, but an appeals court ended up ruling in his favor and dismissing the charges, saying that the military had missed its window to prosecute because the Coast Guard waited nearly two decades to investigate the victim’s allegations.

We learned that two other accused perpetrators were discreetly pushed to retire from the Coast Guard, but that there were nearly 40 cases where the Coast Guard no longer had jurisdiction over the alleged attackers and local and federal criminal statutes had long run out of time, so no action was taken at all.

In terms of what is happening now, we know that the Coast Guard is currently investigating an officer for sexually harassing and groping a cadet who reported him to the academy two decades earlier at the Coast Guard Academy (the officer’s attorney denies the allegations).

The former cadet brought up the allegations during testimony at a congressional hearing last year, but the Coast Guard didn’t launch the criminal investigation until months later, after the woman said she flagged his name on a promotion list to senators.

Another woman has asked Congress to reopen her rape case from 2005, which the Coast Guard has claimed it cannot pursue despite findings at the time that he had “non-consensual” sexual intercourse with her since he is not currently under Coast Guard jurisdiction.

WOLF: There’s a hearing in Congress this week. Shannon Norenberg resigned in protest. Has there been any accountability yet at the Coast Guard Academy or in the Coast Guard?

HICKEN and ELLIS: It sounds like the Coast Guard’s current leader, Commandant Adm. Linda Fagan, will be facing a lot of tough questions at the hearing. So far, she has wanted the agency to focus on the future and make changes to policies that she hopes will help prevent sexual assault and better support survivors.

But many Coast Guard members are frustrated by two major issues: that to date, the leaders who covered up Operation Fouled Anchor still haven’t been held accountable and that Fagan is not acknowledging how much of an issue sexual assault still is in the service today.

Shannon Norenberg was angry that she was used as part of what she described as a “cruel coverup” where victims and Congress were both deceived, but she is also frustrated that more hasn’t changed at the Coast Guard Academy – saying perpetrators are still facing little accountability.

Shannon Norenberg - CNN
Shannon Norenberg - CNN

WOLF: Having covered this for so long, what is it about the Coast Guard Academy that allowed this kind of cover-up culture to develop? Is this a problem specific to the Coast Guard or the academy?

HICKEN and ELLIS: Many of the issues we have seen playing out at the Coast Guard Academy and Coast Guard at large, such as fear of retaliation for speaking out about assaults, a lack of accountability for alleged perpetrators and a boys-club culture, were very similar to what we heard from those in the US Merchant Marine Academy community when we first started this reporting several years ago.

We have also heard from assault survivors from across the military service who argue that our country still has a long way to go in combating military sexual assault and attempting to make survivors whole.

We have also been told by some in the organization that because the Coast Guard does not fall under the Department of Defense, like the other military branches, that it has historically escaped the same level of scrutiny. Many are hopeful that maybe that can change with people who have been terrified to speak up finally feeling like they can.

WOLF: You include your email addresses at the end of your stories and ask for tips to investigate. Does that ever turn into stories?

HICKEN and ELLIS: Yes! We have received so much helpful information through tips in response to our stories, and many of the sexual assault survivors we have spoken with throughout our reporting originally contacted us through our tips email (watchdog@cnn.com).

Many current and former Coast Guard employees have also shared information with us anonymously that has hugely informed our reporting and led to multiple follow-up stories.

We’re always looking for new story ideas, and a variety of our past investigations have stemmed from tips from readers, so we welcome emails!

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