In U.S. Coast Guard’s sexual abuse cases, transparency, accountability cannot be overstated

When there is a lack of transparency and accountability, this is what happened to the U.S. Coast Guard.  Investigation by CNN revealed that sexual abuses at the U.S. Coast Guard Academy were covered up and the findings kept secret. 

According to Operation Fouled Anchor, the internal probe started by the Coast Guard Investigative Service in 2014 and which was completed in 2020, around 60 substantiated incidents of rape, sexual assault and sexual harassment committed by academy cadets from the late 1980s to 2006 were identified.  

At that time, these incidents were ignored and covered up by high-ranking officials.  Despite credible evidence of assaults, investigators found that most of the perpetrators were not criminally investigated at the time.  

The findings were kept confidential by the agency’s top leadership for several years, even from those in Congress with oversight authority over the agency.  Coast Guard officials only briefed members of Congress in June after inquiries from CNN.

The findings also revealed that victims were blamed for contributing to their assaults by drinking alcohol, or not resisting forcefully enough.  Perpetrators, on the other hand, had their conduct minimized and excused. 

Some perpetrators even went on to have a successful career and retired with full pension and benefits.  In contrast, many victims left the academy after reporting their assaults and ended their hopes of a career in the service.  However, the pain and fear lasted long after the victims lost their careers as the sexual abuses left an indelible scar on their psyche.

This latest incident, has yet again, highlights that when leadership is more concern about reputation than the victims of a criminal act, by not taking immediate and appropriate action at the time of the sexual abuses, and by hiding the facts, all trust for an institution is lost.

U.S. Coast Guard must embrace transparency, accountability moving forward

Transparency, the cornerstone of any healthy democracy, promotes public trust. U.S. citizens entrust the Coast Guard with enormous responsibilities, including protecting the country, defending values, and safeguarding people.  By operating under a veil of secrecy, the U.S. Coast Guard risks alienating the public, leading to skepticism, doubt, and mistrust. 

Transparency, on the other hand, fosters an open dialogue between the Coast Guard and society, offering a glimpse into the decision-making process and operational conduct. This transparency assures the public that the Coast Guard’s actions are in line with the values of democracy, further reinforcing their trust and confidence in the institution.

Public trust is vital to the Coast Guard’s effectiveness and the ability to fulfill its mandate.  This trust is crucial not only for maintaining public support but also for ensuring that citizens feel secure and confident in the Coast Guard’s abilities. 

When the Coast Guard is transparent about its actions and operates within an accountable framework, it demonstrates a commitment to the well-being and interests of the citizens it serves, and reinforces the idea that it is an agency that operates in the best interest of the country.

Transparency also serves as a powerful tool for ensuring accountability.  When the operations and decision-making processes are shrouded in secrecy, it becomes difficult to hold individuals or entities responsible for their actions. 

Being transparent fosters an environment in which mistakes, misconduct, and corruption can be identified and addressed promptly.  This not only helps maintain discipline within the ranks but also showcases their commitment to upholding the highest ethical standards.  Only through transparency can the Coast Guard demonstrates that it is accountable to both the law and the citizens it serves.

A lack of transparency can also have a demoralizing effect on personnel. When individuals feel that their contributions are undervalued or their voices are ignored, it can lead to a sense of frustration, alienation, and diminished morale. This can impact recruitment efforts, retention rates and overall cohesion. 

Furthermore, without transparency, personnel may struggle to understand the rationale behind certain decisions or be unable to provide critical feedback for improvement. In turn, this can stifle innovation, professional development and the progression of the Coast Guard as a whole.

Accountability is the lifeblood of any successful organization, and the Coast Guard is no exception.  Accountability is crucial to ensuring that personnel, processes and operations adhere to the highest standards. 

Accountability is essential for maintaining integrity within the institution. The Coast Guard’s reputation is built on the foundation of honesty, ethical decision-making, and upholding the rule of law.  Imposing mechanisms for accountability demonstrate a commitment to these values. 

Holding personnel accountable for their actions ensures that any breaches of integrity, such as misconduct, abuse of power, or corruption are promptly addressed. This upholds the public’s confidence and ensures that the Coast Guard can fulfill its duties with honor and integrity.

Accountability is not only important for external relationships but also for fostering cohesion and trust within the rank and file. When all personnel, regardless of rank, understand that their actions have consequences, it cultivates a sense of trust and mutual respect. 

Each individual knows that they can rely on their colleagues to act responsibly and ethically, making the Coast Guard a more cohesive and effective unit. Accountability also ensures that leadership’s decisions and behaviors are subject to scrutiny and prevents abuse of power, fostering a healthy and trusted command structure.

When information is hidden, it gives rise to fertile ground for abuse of power.  By perpetuating a culture of secrecy, the Coast Guard risks undermining its own credibility and effectiveness.  

Transparency and accountability are indispensable characteristics and the bedrock of a responsible and effective Coast Guard.  Transparency ensures accountability. Together, they act as powerful deterrents against unethical practice, mismanagement and corruption.  

Photo credit: iStock/KatarzynaBialasiewicz

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